We got back to the hotel from the CDC in the early afternoon and had a meeting that afternoon with two other scientists on our team who were coming off the ice. We got up to speed on where the first half of the season had left off and what work needed to be done when we arrived. Afterward, we headed to dinner and back to our rooms to get ready for the flight to the ice that night.
Conveniently, there was a knock on my door as I got out of the shower, totally pumped to be going to Antarctica. It was the hotel staff. 24-hour flight delay. Ugh.
There are several reasons that flights get delayed or cancelled into and out of McMurdo. Unsurprisingly, a big one is weather. McMurdo gets its fair share of blizzard conditions, but usually more damaging are the high winds. Antarctica is the windiest place on earth, with the global record of 199 mph recorded in 1972. In McMurdo, the average wind speed is 14 mph due to the katabatic winds coming over the mountains. It’s not windy all the time, but when it is windy, it can really do some damage. So high wind at the runway near McMurdo is a common reason for grounding flights.
Another prime reason for cancelled flights is runway conditions at the Pegasus Air Field near McMurdo. There are several types of planes that provide transport to the McMurdo area and all of them land on ice. They include C-17s, C-130s, and the newly-introduced commercial Airbus. The Airbus lands with tires while the C-17 and C-130 (also called a Hercules or Herc) land on skis. When the weather is warm at Pegasus, the integrity of the runway degrades. I’ve never tried landing a plane on anything (okay, there was one time with a lot of help), but I would imagine that landing on slush is hard with skis and impossible with wheels. This time of year is the warmest in Antarctica, so poor runway conditions are a significant hazard. Because of this, our delayed flights were routinely being scheduled to depart Christchurch after midnight so that we would arrive between 5am and 11am when the runway would be the most solid.
Turns out, a 24 hour delay is great! It gave enough time to see some of the sights in Christchurch while still arriving on the ice before the Christmas holiday when all of McMurdo shuts down. With our 24 hours, one of the other students and I decided to go sightseeing downtown. First, we stopped for a really delicious lunch at a bistro along the Avon River and watched the punts go by. After lunch, we visited the botanical gardens. There were plenty of lawns and open areas where people were picnicking. Also, an awesome tree that you could go inside and climb around in.
One highlight was the central rose garden which smelled amazing. Therewas even a playground with a kiddie pool, which plenty of families were making use of on their summer holiday. While we stopped for an icecream cone, a little girl and her brother (who seemed to be enjoying his icecream despite the fact that more was on him than in his mouth) befriended us and we had a nice chat.
After we made the rounds in the garden, we dropped into the Canterbury Museum next door. It was an interesting look at the native Maori people as well as the Christchurch connection to Antarctica. It was nice being exposed to some of the local culture, especially since our hotel was in suburbia that seemed just like America other than the nice enclosed gardens at each house and left-hand drivers. At the museum there was a also a whole section about Antarctic exploration which was really awesome.
It was getting to be mid afternoon so we decided to walk past the red zone at the center of downtown before heading back to the bus. The 2011 earthquake virtually destroyed downtown Christchurh. So thoroughly, in fact, that large areas of the center city are still cordoned off so that you can’t get too close to the rubble heaps and half-collapsed buildings. It was an incredible sight to see all the destruction, but also a testament to the fact that we can only do so much to control our natural environment.
Many, many churches around the city were so destroyed you could see through them. Almost all also took this approach of stabilizing the steeple somewhere next to the building. I guess until they fix the damage and/or figure out how to put them back on so that they won’t fall off in another quake
When we got back to the hotel, it was about 5pm. It was then we discovered that the 24 hour delay was mostly an estimate. At about 1:30pm, the flight had been moved up to 8pm so everyone was expected to be on a shuttle to the airport by 6. We had no idea while we were out and about and no one expected them to move the flight earlier, so we were relieved to hear that the departure had since been changed again to 11pm.
That night, I made the fateful mistake of packing up my stuff and showering one last time before leaving. Naturally, as I got out of the shower my phone rang: flight delay til 7am the next morning.