One might assume some warmer weather would be a blessing for anyone toiling in Antarctica.
But when temperatures soar into the relatively balmy mid-20s, getting people and equipment in and out of McMurdo Station can become a bit of an issue. Pegasus Field, a runway built on blue ice that can accommodate large wheeled aircraft, can become pock-marked with soft spots.
These areas can wreck havoc on the landing gear of a C-17, a big cargo jet designed for difficult terrain. And when a storm system brings in a dusting of volcanic dirt, the problems only get worse.
Any dark pigment on the stark white Antarctic landscape absorbs energy from the nearly ’round-the-clock sunlight. This helps melt the ice surface, further destabilizing the runway.
“As soon as you get any color onto the snow the sun tends to melt it really fast,” explained Lt. Col. Chris Sander of the New York Air National Guard, from the Stratton Air National Guard base.
Pegasus Field had gotten bad enough that researchers wrapping up work on the continent this month were looking for alternatives. Enter the specially outfitted LC-130 aircraft assigned to support Operation Deep Freeze, an international research mission at the polar cap.
The unique ski-equipped aircraft flown by the Glenville-based 109th Airlift Wing normally haul supplies and personnel from McMurdo to remote outposts spread across the 5.4 million-square-mile landmass. Earlier this month, they were used in place of other workhorse aircraft that couldn’t take off or land on the damaged runway.
“There was a big concern that ice runway was not going to be usable for the rest of the year,” said Sander, who deployed with the 109th to Antarctica in October. “If that was the case, we’d have to get everyone down there off the ice.”
With the runway out of commission for nearly three weeks, the LC-130s started to fly supply missions to Christchurch, New Zealand. There was talk about extending the mission of the 109th into the Antarctic fall next month.
“Essentially there was a concern we’d have to stay a lot longer than normal,” Sander said.
In a twist of luck, however, the late summer delivered an icy wallop. Temperatures that had hovered in the low 20s earlier this week abruptly plunged below zero; some areas closer to the South Pole recorded temperatures as low as -48 degrees Fahrenheit.
The spate of cold weather allowed crews to repair the runway. Now, Air National Guard members with the 109th are preparing for the long journey home.
First, they’ll take an eight-hour flight to New Zealand, and then another eight-hour hop over to Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. From there, it’s another eight hours in the air to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, before taking the final jump across the Pacific Ocean to California.
Some of the guard soldiers could be home as early as next week. All six aircraft deployed to the polar cap are expected back by late this month.
“They’re pretty much on schedule,” Sander said. “If everything goes well, we’ll start heading out of Antarctica tomorrow.”
Harsh and unpredictable weather has always been a characteristic of the southern polar cap. Only now, the continent is facing a marked warming trend.
A journal produced by Nature Geoscience in December indicated the temperature of West Antarctica had increased by about 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1958, making it one of the fastest-warming regions globally. The report found statistically significant warming during the summer months in particular and suggested a continued rise in these temperatures could lead to extensive melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
Likewise, military leaders working at McMurdo have taken note of a change. In addition to causing runway problems, warmer weather destabilized an ice pier used to support dry cargo operations, prompting the construction of a floating dock
“During the past couple of years, the warmer temperatures have actually been more of a challenge than the cooler temperatures,” Air Force Col. Howard McArthur told the American Force Press Service last week.
Sander said the challenges posed by the Antarctic climate are ones readily managed by the 109th. He said the versatile aircraft can be instrumental in solving logistical problems like an unusable runway.
“This is routine for us,” he said. “We can do it every year.”