Wake Me Up When It's Time to Go

Spectrum's Glenn Zorpette reports from Antarctica

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This is part of the series:
Antarctica: Life on the Ice

Transcript: Wake Me Up When It’s Time to Go

[sound of phone ringing and being picked up]

Glenn Zorpette: I’m in the Copthorne Hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand, sound asleep, when the phone jangles me awake. It’s the front desk calling with dismal news. My flight to Antarctica has been canceled because of bad weather at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. base in Antarctica. I have to kill a few more days in Christchurch.

Julie Deslop: My name is Julie Deslop and I’m at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

Glenn Zorpette: And how have you been killing your time?

Julie Deslop: I’ve been cycling around Christchurch and going for walks in the park and doing a little work with my very intermittent Internet connection. (laughs)

[sound of C-17 idling]

Glenn Zorpette: A few days later, wearing preposterously large white rubber boots, I’m belted into the world’s most uncomfortable seat. But I’m jubilant. This is what I’ve been waiting for. I’m in an Air Force C-17 cargo plane, flying south for five hours, all the way to Antarctica. We circle over McMurdo Station, catching tantalizing glimpses of massive blue glaciers, rugged mountains, an active volcano, huge floating chunks of sea ice. There are even some penguins standing around. But the aircraft suddenly lurches out of its holding pattern and—gimme a break!—we’re flying back to Christchurch. An ice fog has descended over McMurdo and the plane can’t land. We’ve been boomeranged!

Julie Deslop: It was a bit long—at first it was pretty exciting, because it’s a pretty interesting aircraft to be on, but after 5 hours I was ready to get off, and when we circled McMurdo station for an hour and found out we had to leave and do an 11 hour total, it was a bit much.

Charles Bentley: Well, this week is the first time I’ve ever had to boomerang.

Glenn Zorpette: That’s Charles Bentley, a glaciologist who has been going back and forth to Antarctica for a long, long time.

Glenn Zorpette: So when was your first trip to Antarctica?

Charles Bentley: 1956.
Glenn Zorpette: So you’ve been doing this for half a century?

Charles Bentley: That’s right.

Glenn Zorpette: What was the first kind of transport you took down there?

Charles Bentley: We went by ship all the way from the United States to Little America on the front of the Ross Ice Shelf.

Glenn Zorpette: How long did that take?

 Charles Bentley: Overall, it was about a month at sea.

Glenn Zorpette: Hearing about monthlong voyages to Antarctica, I suddenly felt better about my few days’ delay in Christchurch. And now it was time to spend a few hours in a terminal at Christchurch airport, beginning what will be an endless series of required briefings. All very informative.

Unidentified briefer: You’ll then go to screening and on to the bus. When you get on the bus, head to the back of the bus. If you sit down in the first seat, expect to get smacked on the head with bags as every other person comes through to board that bus. Climb on to the aircraft—no photos on the way through, because if you do, you’re likely to be run over by the heavy vehicles that will still be operating.

Glenn Zorpette: The folks I find milling about the terminal are, well, a different crowd from your normal departure-gate zombies.

Carl Whittington: Specifically, I’m looking at how Antarctic fish have evolved to live in their environment.

Glenn Zorpette: Carl Whittington is a grad student at Florida State who’s studying biochemical adaptation.

Glenn Zorpette: So when you catch the fish, what are you looking for? Do you dissect them, do DNA samples, what?

Carl Whittington: All of the above—we’ll probably be looking at fish hearts and fish muscles, so we’ll take them back to the prairie lab, cut out the muscle, grind it up, get whatever protein we need out of it. That’s just for the biochemical side of it.
The main thing is how organisms evolve to live in different habitats. That’s kind of the big thing. Obviously, the really big picture thing would be climate change. These organisms in Antarctica are kind of on a thin line of existence. They live at a certain temperature, and if that temperature raises, it kills the animals. So that’s kind of what we’re looking at, how much leeway these animals have with temperature change and habitat change to survive.

Glenn Zorpette: Ken Walker, an ice-drilling technician, was also milling about the terminal, raring to get back on the ice. Antarctica never gets old, he said.

[music up full briefly]

Glenn Zorpette: Is this your first time in Antarctica?
Ken Walker: No, this will be my fourth trip, actually.

Glenn Zorpette: Fourth trip…and is it getting to be boring at this point?
Ken Walker: Oh, heavens no. It’s more exciting as time goes on. Anyway, my friends and relatives may all think I have some problems, but hey, I’m enjoying the heck out of it.

[music up full to end]