Antarctica – The Chance of a Lifetime

The Dream

Ever since I was a kid and picked up my first book of the continents, and saw Antarctica way down south at the bottom of the world, I’ve dreamed of going there. Antarctica is remote, cold and barren. I’m not sure what this says about my personality, but I’m drawn to it. Soon, I will get my chance to see it. I have accepted a contract position with Raytheon Polar Services to work as a fire dispatcher at McMurdo Station from October 3, 2009 to February 20, 2010. Raytheon Polar Services Company provides the logistical support for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) . The USAP is funded by the National Science Foundation with the goal of supporting the Antarctic Treaty and furthering scientific research.

Where is McMurdo Station?

McMurdo Station lies on the southern tip of Ross Island, on the shore of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. It is 2,200 miles due south of New Zealand at 77 ° 51 ′ South, 166 ° 40 ′ East. This is solid ground the farthest south that a ship can sail. While the continent of Antarctica is 98% covered with ice, McMurdo Station is built on bare volcanic rock.

Political Map of Antarctica

Political Map of Antarctica

Who is at McMurdo?

McMurdo Station is the largest American Base in Antarctica. The population in summer is around 1,100 people with fewer than 200 in winter. McMurdo serves as the logistics base for American operations in Antarctica as well as a science research facility. The station includes an airfield, heliport and harbor, as well as over 100 buildings. While the primary focus of American operations in Antarctica is science, most residents of McMurdo are support staff including cooks, mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, information technology, emergency services and others.

McMurdo Station

McMurdo Station

What’s The Weather Like?

It’s pretty cold at McMurdo. The average annual temperature is around 2°F, with the average high around 8°F and the average low around -5°F. While I’m there, from October through February, it will be spring and summer. October will be the coldest, with average high temperatures around 4°F, and lows around -10°F. December and January will be the warmest, as it will be summer. Average highs in December are around 30°F and lows around 21°F. While these temperatures are cold for summer, they are balmy compared to the interior of Antarctica. At places such as Amundsen-Scott Station (the American base at the South Pole) temperatures are far more extreme. Not only is Amundsen-Scott at the center of the continent away from the moderating influence of the ocean, it is also at an elevation of more than 9200 feet above sea level, compared to McMurdo’s 78 foot elevation. Average summer temperatures at Amundsen-Scott remain below zero, even in the warmest months. The warmest temperature recorded there was 7.5°F on December 27, 1978. Temperatures at McMurdo can rise to 46°F on warm summer days.

Where Will You Live and What Will You Be Doing?

While at McMurdo, I will be living in a dormatory with at least one roomate. Food service is cafeteria style. Housing and food are provided for those working in Antarctica. In the photo above, the four large buildings in the upper left are the dormitories. Below them, toward the center of the photo, is the medical clinic (with the purple/reddish roof). The brown building, with the white vertical stripes, just to the lower left of the clinic, is the firehouse where I will be working as a dispatcher. I will be working twelve-hour shifts, just as I do now, but I will be working three days, followed by three days off. I hope this schedule will allow me free time to take plenty of pictures of the landscape and wildlife, and to meet new people. McMurdo has numerous recreational and social activities I am looking forward to enjoying.

Why Are You Doing This?

I’ve always wanted to go to Antarctica. As a boy when I first learned of it, Antarctica has been an interest of mine. As I grew older I began to realize that somebody must be there working in a scientific capacity. Then several years ago, I read Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole. It tells the story of Dr. Jerri Nielsen who, while spending the winter at the South Pole, discovered a lump in her breast. Unable to leave the South Pole, she relied on other doctors and experts via satelitte and email as well as her fellow “Polies” to help treat herself until she could be flown out for treatment. It was after reading that book that I realized there are regular people just like you or me working in Antarctica. They just happen to be working in one of the most extreme and remote locations on earth. Once I decided to get there, I learned who was hiring and how to get there. After several years of trying, I was offered a position on June 4, 2009.

Are You Crazy?

People have asked me if I’m crazy. Maybe I am. But I consider myself lucky. I’m lucky to have the support of my wife and family. Everyone at my volunteer firehouse is with me. And I get to go someplace I’ve dreamed of going since I was a young boy.

People have also asked about my current job as an emergency services dispatcher. I have requested a leave of absence from the municipality for which I work. I hope it is granted, as I intend to return to my duties there. If it is not granted, so be it. I’m approaching this adventure with an open mind. I guess I need to find myself. (How cliché!) I may find that I want to return and be an emergency services dispatcher for the next twenty years. I may find that I’m a good photographer. I may decide to be a truck driver or a plumber. Or a writer. Or whatever.

Sometimes you just need to take a leap.

And hope you can fly.

3 comments to Antarctica – The Chance of a Lifetime

  • suefrost

    Oh, you can fly. It’s just a question of how fast. In the words of Jonathon Livingston Seagull: “How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!”

  • Kristen Kessel Ellison

    Well, we must both be crazy then. As you know, I want to escape my (wonderful and seemingly perfect) life in NJ and move far, far, far away to do & be something different mainly because I too want to make a difference in the world… yet I’m afraid I can’t fly. Some day I’ll take this big courageous awesome leap like you, some day when I drum up the courage.

    Paulie & I are soooo excited for you and can’t wait to hear all your adventures! Love ya!

  • rosatojo

    Scott-Just wanted to say congratulations to you!!! I remember Kessel telling me about this crazy thing you wanted to do in Antarctica and I am so excited that you have the opportunity to go. I hope that Kessel can forward pictures from you. I could never do it but I am excited to say that I will know someone who went to ANTARCTICA! WOW!!!! I wish you all the luck! Joette

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