Antarctic Update

Posted on Wed, December 16, 2009
  • by: Maria Banks is a post-doctoral fellow with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.

More notes from the field in this follow-up to: "From Earth to Mars: Studying Climate Change in Antarctica"

Maria Banks with C-17 in Antarctica

Post-doctoral fellow Maria Banks standing in front of C-17 after landing on the sea ice at McMurdo Station.


To get to Antarctica, I first flew on commercial flights from Washington, D.C. to Christchurch, New Zealand. While in Christchurch, I picked up special gear for the cold and harsh conditions in Antarctica from the US Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center. Several days later, I boarded a C-17 plane bound for McMurdo Station, Antarctica. In November, the temperatures are still cold enough that the sea ice surrounding McMurdo is used as a runway for aircraft. As I first stepped off the plane in Antarctica onto that expansive sheet of snow-covered ice, I was greeted by a blast of icy air, biting wind, and an amazing view of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost historically active volcano. It was so beautiful, it almost took my breath away!

McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica

View from Observation Hill of McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica.


Over the following week at McMurdo Station, I completed several safety and survival training courses to prepare for my departure into the deep field. The most memorable of these courses was snowmobile training, in which we had to drive “ski doos” through an obstacle course on the sea ice, and Snow Craft I, also known as “Happy Camper School.” At happy camper school, we were taught techniques for keeping warming, dealing with emergencies such as frost bite and hypothermia, how to set up various types of tents in the snow, find a lost person in a white out (with white buckets on our heads!), build a snow wall out of snow bricks, and spend the night in a survival trench.

Maria Banks' Survival Trench, Antarctica

Completed and furnished (with a sleeping bag rated for minus 40 degrees!) survival trench. A sled and some extra snow bricks are used as a roof. The sled has been pulled to the side to allow a view into the trench. Photo by Maria Banks.


There are also many opportunities for interesting hikes surrounding McMurdo and field trips to explore some of the wonders of Antarctica. I was lucky enough that on a field trip to an ice cave, I was visited by several Adelie penguins. While people are not allowed to approach and disturb wildlife in Antarctica, the penguins can do whatever they like! These Adelie penguins were very curious and came within roughly five feet to check us out before tobogganing (sliding on their bellies) off across the sea ice.

Adelie Penguins Near McMurdo Station, Antarctica

A group of Adelie penguins “hanging out” about 10 feet from the camera on the sea ice just outside of McMurdo Station. Photo by Maria Banks.


Soon I will depart for our remote field site to begin work on the drilling project and start a different type of adventure. We will arrive at this site via a four to five hour flight on a C-130 plane with skis!

Post-doctoral fellow Maria Banks standing in front of C-17 after landing on the sea ice at McMurdo Station.