I just made progress on Ice Crisis! So far I’m 80% complete on the Writing phase.
Why write a novel based in Antarctica?
I first became enthralled with Antarctica when I read a book as a child about penguins. At that time it had been less than 50 years since explorers had first reached the South Pole. That is hard to believe. Men had gone to the moon but we still knew little about the coldest, driest continent on earth.
I had the privilege of visiting Antarctica and working there for a month while I was a flight surgeon in the Nebraska Air National Guard. The United States Air Force provides much of the airlift capability for McMurdo Station and the National Science Foundation. The main base for the United States is McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island, a short distance from the mainland of Antarctica. The island is unique in that the western shore of the island borders the “temporary” ice pack while the eastern shore is embedded in the “permanent” ice sheet. The permanent ice provides a location for an air base where even the huge C17 transport jets can land throughout the Antarctic summer.
Antarctica denotes mystery for both science and literature. In the Antarctic winter, there is no sunshine for nearly 6 months. The cold is interminable, reaching as low as 120 degrees below zero. It is cold enough to freeze flesh in moments. Despite a perennial presence man has not overcome the climate of this harsh land and it is not wise to underestimate the risks living there. Cold, wind, darkness, and isolation have the potential to make Antarctica very unpleasant for some.
Nevertheless, the fact that it is so unknown makes Antarctica a popular target for research. Dozens of nations have facilities located on the continent. Researchers study life there, both present and ancient. Physicists find the extreme cold to be favorable for studying neutrinos and astronomers study the heavens from a place with the least light pollution on earth. The potential for new knowledge is huge and the draw is magnetic.
All in all, Antarctica is an ideal location for a new novel. Combining mystery with a poorly understood continent seemed like a winning opportunity. The primary character, Gabe Hunter, is just another researcher looking for answers to questions he has not even thought of yet. He is a virologist, curious about what kinds of diseases may have been present in times past. Antarctica provides an ideal location where frozen in time, viruses may be in suspended animation, waiting to be rediscovered and woken up. He sees the potential for curing current-day illnesses, and some risk of waking up a possible pandemic. His search is interrupted by the discovery of the presence of other people, not far away, with totally different goals.
Suspense, murder, and mystery in the harshest location on earth will keep you glued to the pages as you read Crisis on the Ice – Coming Soon
Other works by Scott McPherson, M.D.
The Jack Sharp, M.D. novels:by
Trip To The South Pole
Describing my trip to the South Pole could be made to sound routine but to me, this opportunity may not come again. Even the crews who fly routinely to the South Pole rarely get to go into any of the facilities. Most people who work in Antarctica never see the actual South Pole. I had the pleasure of meeting several of the South Pole people. Some have come to work only during the Antarctic summer (opposite our North American summer months) months when the temperature may rise to as high as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who have come to live in the darkness for the long winter night may experience temperatures of -120° and colder. They have come knowing that they cannot leave the station once the last flight of the season leaves (around the end of February). Once the temperature on the ground reaches -50° F the workhorse planes, C-130 Hercules aircraft, can no longer risk landing at the South Pole. Severe illness or serious accident must be managed on-site. The physician who remains with the 60 or so people at South Pole Station renders aid, comfort, and provides confidence that their health needs will be met.
I have seen snow and I have seen mountains before. From that perspective, the flight to the Pole was no different. But these mountains and this snow are far from the usual. As we flew over the trans-Antarctic mountains I couldn’t help but think of the men who attempted this journey to the Pole by pulling sleds or following dog sleds. The vast distances, cold, emptiness, and lack of visible life here made those journeys to be true epics in human discovery. These men did not know the distance to the pole. They were unaware of the topography, no man had ever seen it. More was known about the surface of Mars 100 years ago than was known about the lay of the land in Antarctica. So when I looked out from the flight deck of my warm C-130 to the unforgiving glaciers and mountains I was very much in awe of the explorers who have gone before.
Even the technology needed to affix skis to this versatile airplane is mind-boggling. This plane has to be able to land with wheeled landing gear and skis possibly in the same flight. The hydraulics and engineering are beyond me. As we took off from Williams Field on the permanent Ross Ice Shelf we wheeled around to the South toward the Pole. We passed White Island and Black Island (one with snow one with little snow, duh). Mount Discovery (named for Scott’s ship) was on the right. These islands are visible across the shelf from McMurdo Station. Mt Erebus rising over 12,000 feet was behind us still steaming from its active lava lake. The air was as clear as it can be and there were no clouds to obscure the view all the way to the Pole.
The greatest physical obstacle between McMurdo and the Pole is the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. When Richard E. Byrd and his men made their successful attempt to fly over the pole in 1929 they knew this would be their greatest challenge. Climbing up over the ridge to the Polar plateau was a risky undertaking. Their plane was specially designed but still had severe limitations. They cleared the ridge by less than a thousand feet and were able to reach the point where they knew the pole to be. We were able to look at the same area but from a much higher perspective. I can see how it would have been anxiety provoking. There are high mountain peaks on either side of the great Beardmore Glacier leaving no choice but to continue on if one wants to reach the Pole.
Looking down at the Beardmore Glacier it is clear that this ice is on the move. Even from 25,000 feet, the huge pressure ridges can be seen lining up like ripples in a pond. They bend as waves pointing in the direction of travel. At one point two separate glaciers meet just
from the high plateau. Ice falls (waterfalls made of ice that has never been liquid) are prominent along the forbidding cliffs. Soft-appearing marsh-mallow-like snow appears on many mountainsides. It is a sight to make a snowboarder drool. However, the snow is years old.
This is a desert with only a few inches of snow per winter. When it blows it piles into huge drifts but little new snow actually falls. This snow has accumulated and built up unchecked by the summer melts seen in every other continent. This pristine beautiful snow is pure white appears to go on forever.
There is additional evidence of moving ice. Whole “beaches” appear along cliff faces or at the base of large ice falls. These beaches appear to be land but are actually the results of erosion. The ice moves so much material into a valley that it looks like land with regular “waves” of ice breaking on the shore. The early explorers had to navigate around these waves because they could be dozens of feet high and were rife with hidden crevasses.
There are no animals down there. There are no trees or bushes. There are no men or women trekking through the mountain valleys. On such a beautiful day as today, it is inviting to think of sledding or skiing these lonesome mountain sides but this is the least populated and driest continent on earth. It has the highest average elevation of all the continents too. Even the best-prepared adventurer would find conditions extreme if trying to reach the South Pole.
One amazing fact is that much of the high elevation is a result of ice with depths up to 15,000 feet. Though it now receives little moisture the ice has thickened gradually over time to what seems to be impossible depths. At the Pole, there are approximately 8000 feet of ice beneath the building structures. Even at the Pole, the ice is moving. The exact location of the South Pole doesn’t change but the location at the surface of the ice does. This is about 33 feet per year. It is marked by a succession of South Pole Marker – Poles.
Once the Trans-Antarctic Mountains have been bested, the vast South Pole plateau stretches on into the distance. Even from our high vantage point, there were no landmarks. Just like flying over the ocean once land falls away to the rear only the curve of the earth breaks up the otherwise solid color. Here in Antarctica, no distinct horizon could be seen. Whether a refractive property of light or just haze caused by fine ice crystals there is no way to tell where the ice and snow stops and the sky starts. Compasses are useless. I watched as the compass on-board our aircraft continuously spun through 360°. The flight path is constant but as we drew near the pole the crew donned their helmets to drown out extraneous noise and lights and for protection. They used their oxygen hook-ups and the Navigator began to call out coordinates. He directed the pilot so that even if we entered a thin cloud of ice crystals he would not misjudge the landing. These thin layers are completely transparent when viewed from below or above but once inside the layer visibility can fall to zero horizontally. Our skilled crew had no such difficulty and the landing was very smooth even with skis instead of wheels.by
6 February 2007
Antarctica – An Exciting Day
Today things got a little “exciting” as we had a potentially serious injury. I can’t share details but the member was medically evacuated to Christchurch NZ. It was the first urgent evacuation I have participated in and it went fairly smoothly. It is helpful that we had a plane available to fly the injured person out. Imagine if this were mid-winter when there are no planes flying.
Once the temperature at the South Pole reaches -50° F the C130’s can’t reliably fly. They do fly in temperatures at altitude that are even lower but starting engines at that temperature can be damaging to the engines. The final “pull-out” date for the South Pole is not absolute but will come soon. Since traveling to other parts of Antarctica is the primary mission for the Air National Guard here the planes leave McMurdo shortly after closing the South Pole. “Closing” is a relative term. There are still personnel who remain there through the winter. They are hardy souls who have gone through a battery of psychological and medical tests to be sure they can tolerate the austere conditions.
At the South Pole temperatures in winter can be lower than -120° F with winds exceeding 60 mph. Even now the temperature there is 40 – 50 degrees colder than here at McMurdo. Until last week there was no physician selected to remain at the South Pole for the winter but at the last minute, the physician who is already at the Pole has agreed to remain through the winter as well. In addition to the cold and wind, there is no sunlight at the South Pole for months. The sun sets in March and does not rise again until September. That would have serious consequences for someone with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
We are an isolated community here. When one person here comes down with even a cold it can run through the population like fire. While it is summer we can send people away but in winter they are stuck here and have to deal with any outbreaks. Everyone is briefed repeatedly about hand-washing and hygiene and still, they can have bouts of “Antarctic Crud.” So far I have felt great.
Freighter unloading operations are continuing and all the containers that were on the deck have been off-loaded. They move them into the center of “town” near the dormitories (orange fencing denotes “off limits”) on flatbed trucks some of which date back to the Korean War. They are systematically unloaded with forklifts and personnel from each shop or building take charge of their year’s worth of supplies. Almost everyone gets involved. If you are not you must stay away from the unloading areas to avoid injuries like the one recently mentioned. This supply issue is one more example of how different things are here. We have become accustomed to the Wal-mart mentality. Anything you need is at the store so get it when you need it. We don’t need to stockpile, therefore we don’t need to plan ahead. While this is good for Wal-mart it is inefficient and costly for us. There are some good lessons to be learned here even in something as basic as supply and storage.by
6 Feb 2007
Not everyone who comes to McMurdo Station in Antarctica has the opportunity to travel to distant stations. Travel here is on a “need to go” basis. There are people working at McMurdo for years who have never been to the South Pole. Ed works here but his wife has spent the season at the South Pole. They will be reunited at the end of the season in New Zealand but they have not seen each other all summer. Ed has never been to the South Pole. I am among the privileged and will be able to fly to the South Pole on Wednesday.
Today is the beginning of a very special and busy time at McMurdo Station. The arrival of the annual cargo vessel occurred today. One might think that with sea access there are cargo ships coming and going all summer but this is not the case. There is one cargo vessel a year and it brings supplies for the entire year (not just the winter). The oil/fuel tanker likewise comes in only one time per year. The operation for off-loading fuel took about 2 days and 7 million gallons were pumped into waiting fuel tanks above McMurdo Station. The ship would have left two days ago but strong winds threatened to push the now lighter ship into ice or rocks in the narrow bay. No tugs are available here to maneuver such a large ship so under its own power there was fear that they would not have enough control to prevent an incident. The tanker finally backed out and proceeded through an ice channel kept open by the Coast Guard Cutter “Polar Sea.”
Cell phones? What are those? We do have pagers but must find a land-line phone if we receive a page. There are places on the base with wireless internet but I believe these areas are for the scientists. Thankfully we have a good internet connection (via satellite) with speed equivalent to DSL at home. We are asked to be prudent about the amount of bandwidth we use, however. I have sent pictures home but I reduce the size of the files first.
Everything here is recycled. There are waste cans for each type of material. When broken down into “Burnables, Plastics, Food Items, Bio Hazard, Aluminum, Tin-metal” it doesn’t seem to complicated. Everyone does it everyday. When you empty your waste can you separateout the different types of material and that is that. Where does it all go? There is no recycling station here but it all gets deposited in containers and loaded on a ship to be recycled at home. At the sewage plant water is thoroughly processed and the effluent is clean enough to drink. The only reason it is not used for drinking is peoples’ perceptions of the idea of drinking “treated” water. The more solid waste is actually packaged and shipped away for further processing to avoid contaminating the local environment. I find it interesting that even the seeds in food we eat are not substantially changed as they go on through the treatment process.
Yesterday I was privileged to have a tour of the Crary Science Center. Through this center the bulk of the scientific research is processed and distributed to the world. Most of the equipment and samples have been packed up as the scientist prepare to leave the ice for the season. Nevertheless, the center will be staffed was able to see a see spider and a creature that looked like a large cockroach. There were fish called “Borg” that contain in their cells chemicals that act as “antifreeze” and lessen their risk of being frozen into the ice pack.
Also we viewed a live webcam of the lava lake below the rim of mount Erebus. This 12,000 foot active volcano doesn’t spew large volumes of lava but has a stable lake that occasionally “burps” up lava “bombs.” There is only one other volcano in the world located in Africa has such a lake. This volcano is unlikely to explode, like a Mount St. Helens, because the lava lake demonstrates the stability of the pressures beneath.
I have been meeting very interesting people here. Everyone has an interesting story of how they got here. Some have always dreamed of doing research here. Others willingly took jobs such as dishwashing and janitorial service just to be here. It isn’t very glamorous for them but in time most people get to see interesting things. Here are a few of their stories:
James – works in recycling/waste management. He has been returning to Antarctica for 8 years. He came following his girl friend. She met another and was married. Later he met someone else and she now goes with him to Antarctica. He loves it here. “It gets me out of my cubicle in back home.” He has spent the winter in the past but prefers to return to home at the end of the season now.
Sherrie – Has been to McMurdo one other time. She is part of the 109th Medical Group and works as a med tech here. In her civilian life she is a nurse-practitioner with a pulmonary/critical care group. She will be leaving this week and is anxious to see her sons again.
Chris and Cindy – Chris flies helicopters and Cindy is involved in logistics here at McMurdo. She distributes equipment to the scientists who travel into less hospitable areas of Antarctica. The couples have a ranch in the US to which they will return when they are finished here in about 1 1/2 weeks. Chris has flown helicopters in the US and has worked in an operation in Angola. They love coming to the Antarctic and plan to keep returning as long as possible.
Bethany and Stephen – This couple met in college and Stephen learned about the Antarctic program while studying in Australia. He applied and was able to find work here two years ago as a journalist. After their recent marriage Bethany came along and works as the clinic janitor. They love their experience and will plan to return. They have rented a small house in an idyllic setting on a mountain in Vermont biding their time until they can return again next year.
“In Antarctica, science is a parking permit, and those who want to stand in the parking spaces must first be able to afford the permit to stand there.”
The Big Dead Placeby
Antarctica! In honor of the 10th year since I stepped foot on the ICE I will reprint, over the coming weeks, the posts I sent back to readers at that time. I was a member of the Nebraska Air National Guard and, as a flight surgeon, had the great opportunity to provide medical support to the McMurdo station in 2007. It was a life-changing journey and one that I tried to repeat, to no avail.
My next novel, now in the review stage, “Crisis on the Ice” borrows from my experiences and those of others who have traveled to Antarctica. Of course, as a work of fiction, it borrows from my imagination as well. Stay with me and learn about this fascinating world that few are privileged to visit. ANTARCTICA!
4 February 2007
February second was the day I was scheduled to travel to Antarctica. The flight was scheduled to leave at 10:00 but was delayed because of fog at the landing field. Until they were sure the fog would lift in time for the flight to land they did not want the C17 to leave Christchurch. Weather in Christchurch was beautiful. It was about 70 ° F and a calm breeze. Prior to being loaded onto the C17 we were expected to have with us all our cold weather gear. Before stepping off the aircraft we needed to don boots, wind pants, gloves, and parka. There were only seven passengers (PAX in military terms) but on the plane with us were three containers of liquefied helium gas totaling about 75,000 pounds of helium. The containers are so large that a C130 is only able to carry one at a time. These huge tanks were secured by chains in multiple places putting me in mind of a rogue elephant being held down by ropes and chains. These banged against the sides of the tanks during take-off and I watched closely to be sure they didn’t move side to side. I needn’t have worried, the loadmasters on the C17’s know their job.
The C17 does not land at the same place (called Pegasus) on the ice as the C130 so once the plane lands the helium tanks will be loaded on sleds and towed about 2 miles to the C130 landing area (Williams’ field). These will be flown to the South pole individually and utilized for stabilization of the radio-telescopes there. These telescopes were strategically placed at the South Pole because they can be used 24/7 throughout the long Antarctic winter night. According to one of the scientists they use the information to try to learn more about the origin of the universe. If I get to the pole he has offered to let me look them over. The names of the telescopes are “Bicep,” Quad, South Polar Telescope. From what I now know about my trip to the South Pole, though, I won’t have time to do much looking around.
This is summer time in Antarctica. As a consequence the weather has been very nice with highs in the 30’s 40’s Fahrenheit. However today the weather has changed and the high was only 18° with a fairly strong wind. The wind caused the fog to form. This had delayed our departure but also had the effect of moving ice out of the bay so that there is open water visible from McMurdo base. Several people have reported whale sightings, though I haven’t seen any yet. (This is a Killer Whale photo) I saw seals on the ice yesterday but they were too far for a photo.
McMurdo Station is located on Ross Island so technically I still am not “on” Antarctica. The ice shelf is solid here and the aircraft actually land on the permanent sea ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. When we landed we were transported to McMurdo station by van with regular, albeit large, tires. The ice of course is white but as soon as we neared Ross Island the white landscape changed to the brownish gray of lava. This entire region is volcanic in origin. Mt Erebus which was covered in clouds is not far away and is an active volcano spewing gases and occasional lava bombs.
Scott base is run by New Zealand and consists of “kiwi green” buildings on the shore of Ross Island. Just over a pass we drove by large fuel tanks above McMurdo Station then descended into the small town that is McMurdo Station. I was surprised by how many buildings appeared before me. These weren’t little Quonset hut units but large 3 story dormitories, modern design buildings, and even a chalet style structure. There were dozens (at least one hundred) of vehicles from the boxy “deltas” to tracked pickup, vans, sno-cats, the terra bus.
My dorm is the one in the middle and I have a first floor room. Most people have roommates but I am on my own. What is actually happening now is that most scientific research and polar operations are winding down. While I am just beginning my time here many are preparing to leave having been on the ice all summer. The “winter” people are anxious for the “summer” people to move on so they can get on with the work they will do through the winter time. I have missed many of the scientific lectures and field trips that earlier visitors could take. Nevertheless, I hope to get to the South Pole yet. More to follow.by