Hope for Supporting Polar Science Brightens at the Bottom of the World

The Deck team puts fenders on the back of the ship in case one of the supply vessels, you know, runs into us. (Brandon R. Reynolds)

The seventh and concluding post in a series of dispatches from freelance writer Brandon Reynolds aboard the USCG icebreaker Polar Star, on its annual resupply mission to the research base, McMurdo Station. It's a critical task imperiled by the nation's aging, shrinking fleet of ice-breaking ships.

Everyone must inevitably deal, at some point, with “the break-up.” It wears different disguises in different places — the surprise invitation, the unexpected pregnancy, the phone call late in the night — but you know it simply as that which changes your direction.

In McMurdo Sound the break-up is what happens to the fast ice that stretches from volcanic Mt. Erebus on the east all the way west to the edge of the continent. Just about every year the ice around McMurdo breaks up late in the season. Wind force, melting caused by seawater and the actions of a certain plucky icebreaker destabilize the whole giant ice sheet where once we ran around with penguins.

The fast ice breaks away from land all the way to Mt. Erebus and begins floating north.
The fast ice breaks away from land all the way to Mt. Erebus and begins floating north. (Brandon R. Reynolds)

Thursday afternoon the captain mentioned that a crack had formed across the whole channel. By midnight a 147-square-mile section of the fast ice had broken off and begun floating away north. In a few hours, weeks of work spent grooming the channel all just blew away. Once, there was a path through ice. Now there’s open water. Imagine building a bridge every year, and every year it gets washed away.

We spent three days at McMurdo Station, which is a little like a mining town, or a moon colony. It feels very far from the rest of the world. The people are an interesting bunch, scientists and contractors, exactly the kind of people who wish to live very far from the rest of the world. There is pizza 24/7. Just down the road is New Zealand’s Scott Base, which is smaller and uniformly painted a delightful shade of pea green.

Lt. Junior Grade Jack Hall and Lt. Junior Grade Cyrus Unvala check the distance between the Ocean Giant and Polar Star.
Lts. Junior Grade Jack Hall and Cyrus Unvala check the distance between the Ocean Giant and Polar Star. (Brandon R. Reynolds)

We’re now in the midst of McMurdo’s annual resupply. The freighter Ocean Giant is docked, offloading a year’s worth of supplies and collecting a year’s worth of trash and freeze-dried poop, or so I hear. We’ll escort the Giant out, meet up with the fuel ship, bring it in. Once it’s offloaded its fuel, McMurdo will be supplied for the next year. Through McMurdo, the rest of the continent will be, too, because, as Capt. Matt Walker points out, "McMurdo is the major port in Antarctica, so all of Antarctica feeds off of McMurdo for its supplies and logistics.” It’s no exaggeration to say that the survival of the continent, meaning other U.S. bases but also many of the bases belonging to other nations, relies on McMurdo. It’s run by the National Science Foundation, which means, in a way, that NSF runs the continent. And NSF relies on Polar Star carving its thin lifeline in the ice, which nature, presently, will erase.

Soon we’ll get the hell out of here and the people at McMurdo will get the hell out of here, too, piling into ski-equipped C-130 turboprops and flying to Christchurch and points north. Then winter arrives to turn endless day into endless night, to blot out the sky with 200 mile-per-hour winds, and to replace the sheet of ice in McMurdo Sound as though none of us were ever here. Whatever memory this place has is carried deeper than the few meters of frozen water the ship plows through every year. We will be remembered by no one save a few photobombed penguins and the odd startled seal. Leave no trace, they say.

Executive Officer Cmdr. Mary Ellen Durley and Capt. Matt Walker look back at the turning basin as Walker breaks Polar Star into the pier at McMurdo Station.
Executive Officer Cmdr. Mary Ellen Durley and Capt. Matt Walker look back at the turning basin as Walker breaks Polar Star into the pier at McMurdo Station. (Brandon R. Reynolds)

Back in the world, with a nudge from President Obama, the Coast Guard this month put out the call for two new icebreakers, saying it plans to award a contract in late 2018 or ’19.

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“I think the forces in play are going in the right direction," says Walker, "and now that the public is aware of [the icebreaker mission] more so than it ever has been before, we might get some of the funding required.”

At the end of this mission, a good chunk of the Engineering department, which holds a lot of the institutional memory of the ship, will move on or retire. On next year’s Deep Freeze, many new folks will receive surprise invitations from Polar Star herself, possibly in the middle of the night, to come on down and repair something that’s gone totally sideways.

Capt. Matt Walker explains the route around Antarctica.
Capt. Matt Walker explains the route around Antarctica. (Brandon R. Reynolds)

Walker is leaving, too, not just Polar Star, but the organization. This is his last sail for the Coast Guard. He’s retiring in 2017 after a year in Saudi Arabia. That’ll be 30 years in the Coast Guard, 21 of which he has spent at sea, which is a tremendous amount of time to be underway.

"I’m not a gray flannel cubicle kind of guy,” he says. "I’m an adventurous kind of guy, I like to get out and see the world."

Walker’s happy that his last mission underway was Polar Star.

“I think we’ve achieved a lot of significant milestones in the last few years after we brought the Polar Star back to life,” he says. "Even though she is old and she breaks down a lot. We’ve proven to the world that we’re the only vessel really that can dependably break out McMurdo.”

What I’ve figured out that means is that the icebreaker supports scientific experiments, but also the American experiment. The mission, says Walker, "is essential to mankind and distinguishes us from the animals in that search for science and knowledge. And why would we forfeit that?” On a strategic level, "it’s critical for us to be able to navigate all the waters of the world.”

Down here, science and politics and national priorities converge along with all the other lines.

View of McMurdo Station from Observation Hill, where a cross has been erected to the Robert Falcon Scott expedition, whose members died on their return from the South Pole. Polar Star is docked. Note the turning basin at left and the channel, dimly visible, which runs out to open water in the distance.
View of McMurdo Station from Observation Hill, where a cross commemorates the Robert Falcon Scott expedition, whose members died on their return from the South Pole. Polar Star is docked in the distance. Note the turning basin at left and the channel, dimly visible, which runs out to open water in the distance. (Brandon R. Reynolds)

Everything about this place tells the average shivering, possibly dying human that we’re the unnatural element. This has worked out remarkably well for the continent. "One of the most dramatic things about Antarctica is that there is no smog,” says Walker. "You see a mountain range that is 50 to 100 miles away, It’s crystal clear, not like anywhere where humans occupy. There’s pure air down here.”

That it’s unspoiled makes it desirable for scientists who want to get an unobstructed view of the history of the Earth by looking down and the universe by looking up. It also, of course, makes it desirable for many nations, who see opportunity in the possible wealth of resources beneath the surface.

So in the laboratory of Antarctica, what’s revealed about international cooperation may be as important as any other discovery. None of this will be readily apparent.

“For the young kids, when we sail, they’re down there sweeping the decks, cleaning dishes in the scullery — they don’t get to see the big picture,” Walker says. "It’s very similar to the deck hands on Magellan's crew or Columbus’ crew: They were just steaming along doing their daily job."

In just a few hours, the fast ice covering McMurdo Sound begins breaking up, taking the channel with it.
In just a few hours, the fast ice covering McMurdo Sound begins breaking up, taking the channel with it. (Brandon R. Reynolds)

"But breaking out McMurdo — we might save the world through some scientific discovery that they find in Antarctica," ventures Walker. "We might not know it today or tomorrow, but maybe, in 10 years, 20 years from now, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, I participated in that, I contributed to that, by washing dishes on the Polar Star.’”

Maybe someday they will realize how they’re participating in this experiment for the future of Earth, or whatever’s beyond Earth. Maybe they’ll turn on the holographic TV we’ve all had genetically wired into our brains, and watch the first Earthlings plant a future flag on a distant planet, and they’ll connect themselves to that moment, from alien soils back through cold space, from space down through the aurora at the bottom of the world, and across a peaceful continent, and through the ice, to where they were once underway, making a way.

And that’s a whole other story, but that’s for later. For now, there’s a continent to save for one more year and, a world away, the world we want to hurry up and return to.

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Brandon R. Reynolds lives in Los Angeles but currently summers in the Antarctic Circle. He has written for San Francisco Magazine, SF Weekly, The Atlantic, and Oxford American. On Twitter @sonnyborderland.

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