I’m very fortunate to be on the ‘wormherders’ expedition to the Shackleton Glacier camp this year. Although I have an appreciation for nematodes and other soil animals (who doesn’t?) – I’m not a ‘wormherder’ per se. Instead, I’m a microbial ecologist who will be studying the Bacteria and Archaea in the soil samples we’ll be collecting. Although soil animals may be cute – the microbes are far more charismatic (ha!). The miscellaneous comments below are mine alone – I do not necessarily speak for the rest of the team (nor do they want me to speak on their behalf).

Getting to Antarctica requires a lot of sitting. To get from Colorado to McMurdo Base involved a 2.5 h flight to Los Angeles, followed by a 12+ h flight to Auckland, and a 1.5 h flight to Christchurch, NZ. After a few days in Christchurch (where we do some training and get outfitted with our cold weather gear) – there is a 7 h flight on a C-130 cargo plane to McMurdo Base. This flight was as comfortable as a cargo plane can get (at least there was ample leg room) – but it is loud. Hearing protection is required during the entire flight unless you want to end up as deaf as a drummer in a metal band. We also have to be wearing our cold weather gear (gumby boots, heavy parkas, insulated Carhartt overalls, etc.) – we looked like we are tailgating at a Packers game in early December (only without the bratwurst).

Five hours into the flight from Christchurch to McMurdo – we were greeted with a spectacular view of Antarctica – peaks, glaciers, snow, and more snow – potential ski lines as far as the eye can see. I’ve done a bit of traveling around the globe, and that first glimpse of the Antarctic continent is easily one of the most impressive views I’ve ever seen and one I’ll never forget. A horizon-spanning view of a continent nearly untouched by humans and nearly untouchable.

We are spending a few days here in McMurdo station before we fly 500 miles south of here to the remote field camp on Shackleton Glacier in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains (85 degrees south, 177 degrees west). The plan is to fly out on Dec. 22nd, but plans in Antarctica are mere suggestions – it all depends on weather and delays of multiple days are par for the course. Anyone who frequently travels in Antarctica has had to spend weeks waiting for flights due to bad weather – it makes that 2-hour flight delay in O’Hare seem trivial.

While we are here in McMurdo, we’ve been packing our camp supplies, sorting out logistics, and taking our required training. This training has covered topics ranging from glacier travel and crevasse rescue to fire prevention to helicopter safety to deployment of your survival kit to the appropriate use of your pee bottle (anyone working in Antarctica must abide by the ‘leave no trace’ ethic). Even folks who have worked in Antarctica for decades need to re-take all these training courses every year – ‘death by powerpoint’ is unavoidable.

No logistics here are left to chance. The folks working for the US Antarctic Program (USAP) clearly do not trust absent-minded professors (and for good reason). Even before I left the cozy confines of Boulder, CO – I was deluged with ‘must read’ emails. In McMurdo, these points were repeated ad nauseum. We are told where to be at exactly what time and what to do if anything goes awry (and they often do). The USAP staff are clearly on the top of their game and their organizational skills would put a wedding planner in Long Island to shame.

I’ll post again when we get back from Shackleton Glacier (no internet there). I’ll include more details on the scientific questions we’ll be asking and why we are asking them. Hopefully the post will also include some beautiful photos of the team sampling soils under sunny skies with smiles on our faces (but no guarantees).