Environment

Antarctica, night-vision goggles, US Air Force Globemaster
Raytheon Antarctic Services, Allen Delaney, HO/AP

Historic Antarctica Landing Could Change Research Landscape

September 16, 2008 05:58 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The flight was made by a pilot wearing night-vision goggles, suggesting that travel to and from the icy continent is possible even during sun-starved winters.

Airplane Makes ‘Dangerous’ Winter Flight

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The U.S. Air Force Globemaster airplane arrived at the U.S. Antarctic research center at McMurdo Station during a snowstorm September 11, after taking off from Christchurch, New Zealand.

The flight was described as “dangerous stuff” by the pilot, Air Force Lt. Col. Jim McGann. “The goggles were fantastic, the outline and runway were perfectly clear and we could see it from three miles and rolled right in. A picture perfect landing,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

During the Antarctic’s long winter, the sun is absent for months at a time. The ability to make flights during that time period will enable scientists to ferry people in an out of the area more frequently and, more importantly, conduct supply flights and medical evacuations at any time of year. In 1998, American physician Jerri Nielsen, unable to leave Antarctica during winter, was forced to treat herself for breast cancer—an incident that was fictionalized in an episode of the Fox drama “House M.D.” that guest-starred Mira Sorvino as the patient forced to perform surgery on herself.

The night flight “was an historic event,” McGann said. “It will certainly bring a measure of reassurance to those at McMurdo and [New Zealand’s] Scott Base over the winter.”

Background: Life in Antarctica

“Imagine a whole world covered in ice and snow: ice on the mountains, ice capping the sea, ice tumbling off the cliffs, whole caves and hills made of ice, ice crunching under your feet, and ice crystals glittering on your eyelashes. Imagine that, and you have an idea of what it’s like to be in Antarctica at about 78 degrees South latitude, the approximate latitude of McMurdo Station, Antarctica,” according to Antarctica Online.

Working in Antarctica is no ordinary endeavor. The lack of fresh ingredients necessitates cooking with mostly canned or dried goods, and workers are subject to long periods of darkness and indoor confinement. But the British Antarctic Survey contends that facilities are well-equipped and the temperatures are not quite as cold as one might expect. And according to some accounts, such as a recent MSNBC report, there is even some nightlife for those stationed there, such as swing dancing at a popular local club.

The sparsely populated region has no natives and is home to only a few hundred workers, who live there for short time periods of up to a year. Its major industry is science; the U.S. McMurdo Station is its largest “city” with more than 1,000 people living there during the summer, which lasts from October to February. Combined with scientists from other nations, the population reaches only about 8,000 during the research season.

The remote continent remains mysterious to the rest of the world, and many people do not know the extent to which it has been evolving.

Michael Stoddart, the former chief scientist of the Australian Antarctic Division over the past decade, has seen the area undergo a radical transformation due to environmental degradation. The disintegration and shrinking of major ice shelves that have altered the chemistry and physics of the aquatic world will have major consequences that will reverberate throughout the ecosystem, he warns. Freshwater let loose from melting polar ice will dilute the saltiness of seawater, and affect the ocean’s currents and ultimately, global weather patterns. The loss of surface ice will affect the algae that live there and that also feed fish that sustain other aquatic creatures.

Reference: Antarctica

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