This week’s journey takes me back to one of the coldest and most desolate places on Earth: Antarctica. Believe it or not, this barren and frigid land was at the top of my list of places I hoped to deploy during my Navy career, and I was honored to be chosen to do so aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star in the winter of 2019.
Antarctica is the world’s fifth-largest and southernmost continent. It covers an area of 14.2 million square kilometers (5.5 million square miles), 98% of which is covered by ice averaging nearly two kilometers in thickness. Most of Antarctica is a polar desert, with annual precipitation totals of less than eight inches. The average temperature in the winter months is −81°F (−63°C), although it can dip considerably lower; the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was registered in East Antarctica in 2010, at -135.8°F (-94.7°C). The continent is governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System, of which there are currently 54. The treaty sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation, and bans military activity. Depending on the time of year, between 1,000 to 5,000 people reside at research stations scattered across the continent.
Few ships brave the perilous seas of the Antarctic Circle, with the exception of those designed to navigate it successfully. USCGC Polar Star, a U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker, is one such vessel. Commissioned in 1976 and built by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company, Polar Star is the only ship of its type remaining in the U.S. fleet after the deactivation of its sister vessel, USCGC Polar Sea, in 2010. Each year, Polar Star travels from its homeport in Seattle, WA to Antarctica, where its primary mission is the breaking of a channel through sea ice to the continent’s remote McMurdo Research Station. During these deployments, Polar Star also serves as a scientific research platform, offering up to 20 scientists the ability to carry out at-sea studies in the fields of oceanography, geology, volcanology, sea-ice physics and other disciplines. At the request of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Coast Guard, I joined Polar Star on-loan from the U.S. Navy, serving as the ship’s METOC (Meteorology and Oceanography) Officer for its 2019 journey to McMurdo Station. The mission was aptly named Operation Deep Freeze 2019.
I started my journey to Antarctica the day after Christmas in 2018, catching a flight from San Diego to Sydney, Australia via LAX. I met up with the ship and crew immediately, as Polar Star had arrived shortly before I did en route from Seattle. I had a few days in the city to enjoy myself before we departed for Antarctica, and took advantage of the warm summer days and nights to explore beautiful Sydney…
Polar Star got underway from Sydney on New Year’s Day 2019, and sighted ice for the first time late in the evening on January 6th. An increasing number of icebergs were observed by the crew throughout the night, and on January 7th, we crossed the Antarctic Circle. The crew also observed pack ice for the first time that evening, and navigated through 120 nautical miles before reaching fast ice – that is, ice that is anchored to the shore – on January 10th, approximately 16 miles from McMurdo Station.
Polar Star‘s hull is designed to maximize ice breaking by efficiently combining the forces of the ship’s forward motion, the downward pull of gravity on the bow, and the upward push of the stern’s inherent buoyancy. A curved bow allows Polar Star to ride up on top of the ice, using the ship’s weight to fracture it. The ship thus carved a channel through the ice in wedges, cutting through in one- to two-mile increments before reversing course and penetrating the floe of ice created. The first ten miles of ice were approximately six to eight feet thick, and the last six miles were eight to ten feet thick, with an additional six to twelve inches of snow compacted on top of the ice.
On January 24th, Polar Star arrived at McMurdo Station. Founded in February 1956 on the southern tip of Ross Island, the station is operated by the United States Antarctic Program, a branch of the National Science Foundation (NSF). It is the largest community in Antarctica, capable of supporting over 1,200 residents, including several dozen scientists and a large contingent of personnel providing support for operations, logistics, technology, construction and maintenance. The station is comprised of multiple facilities, including a wharf, firehouse, power plant, dormitories, stores, pubs and coffeehouses, as well as an interfaith chapel and the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center. It is located approximately two miles by road from Scott Base, a science station operated by New Zealand.
When we arrived at the station, Polar Star discovered that the adjacent ice pier had moved approximately eight feet from land, and the ship assisted in moving it back into place before mooring. While there, I visited the NSF’s weather center, touring the facilities and meeting up with friends and colleagues I had previously worked with when stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Germany. I had the opportunity to launch a weather balloon to collect atmospheric data for the center, and spent a few hours hiking up to the summit of Observation Hill. The weather center crew was also kind enough to take me to the pubs and coffeehouse they frequent, and to the post office to stamp my passport. The sun never went down during our stay – definitely a new experience for me.
On January 30th, Polar Star escorted M/V Ocean Giant through the ice channel to McMurdo Station. The cargo ship was eagerly anticipated, as it arrives only once per year to supply the station and its residents with much-needed rations of everything from fuel to food to scientific equipment. In 2019, Ocean Giant off-boarded nearly 500 containers and other cargo equaling 7 million pounds of supplies, including frozen and dry food stores, building materials, vehicles, electronic equipment and parts. Following the offload, the crew on-boarded 450 containers of station waste and recyclables, as well as ice-core samples for scientific study.
As this off-boarding and on-boarding process took several days to complete, Polar Star‘s crew took advantage of the opportunity to effect minor repairs, tour the Ross Ice Shelf, and conduct reconnaissance in the area of Marble Point. We also had the opportunity to experience ice liberty in McMurdo Sound, where we were let out on the ice to explore, play football, and relax. The highlight was coming into contact with Antarctic wildlife, including a particularly curious emperor penguin and a very-laid back seal. I had never experienced anything like it, and probably never will again. It was both exhilarating and surreal.
Special thanks to the crew of Polar Star for their great hospitality on board, and to my friends at the weather center in McMurdo Station for making my visit a memorable one. -Tito June
Next week’s journey: The Blue Mosque – Istanbul, Turkey