By Brandon O'Connor, Pointer View Assistant EditorJanuary 17, 2019
Stepping off the plane decked in a heavy parka, wool lined boots and litany of other cold weather gear, U.S. Military Academy Class of 2019 Cadet William Merrill entered one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.
Thanks to a prank played on Merrill and his peers from the Coast Guard and Naval academies, the full assortment of cold weather gear may not have been necessary, but for their first moment in Antarctica it was better to be safe than sorry.
"They knew we were new guys," Merrill said of the flight crew's instructions on the plane ride from New Zealand to Antarctica. "We all got outfitted in our cold weather gear and it is 10 to 20 degrees on the runway, so it wasn't that cold. We were in gear rated for negative 50 so we are just hobbling around. Then we get on this huge bus and everybody is just looking at us like, 'who are these guys?'"
Through an internship program offered by the National Science Foundation, Merrill spent Christmas break in Antarctica at McMurdo Station. The three service academy students were on the continent from Dec. 16-30 learning about the science being conducted as well as the operational logistics it takes to run multiple bases in an area not designed to support human life.
Merrill's trip marked the fourth time in five years a cadet has been able to participate in the program.
To be eligible for the program, which is facilitated through the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, cadets must have completed either the climatology or meteorology elective courses.
Prior to heading to Antarctica, Merrill first traveled to Christchurch, New Zealand where he was outfitted with cold weather gear for the trip to the arctic. An issue with their plane delayed the journey to Antarctica briefly, but after touching down and "hobbling" in the cold weather gear, it didn't like long for the moment to set in.
"When we stepped off the plane, it is really hard to describe, but it hits you that you are on the continent of Antarctica and you look around and it is just stark whiteness just everywhere," Merrill said. "There is just nothing. The nothingness is overpowering."
Throughout the two weeks at McMurdo, Merrill and his peers were introduced to everything it takes to make the station run year-round.
Being there in the summer meant cold, but bearable temperatures in the 20s and 30s with wind chills in the teens to single digits for most of the trip, but in the winter those temperatures plunge into the negatives with a skeleton crew on hand to man the base.
"The purpose of the program is to introduce cadets to Antarctic operations and operations in an extreme environment," Merrill said. "We learned a lot about the logistics of the base and how everything runs. How food, fuel, waste, water, all those things are integrated into daily operations at the base and how those help further the NSF's goals."
Along with learning about the logistics, Merrill was able to learn about the research being conducted by the scientist at the base. Additionally, as part of the internship, the group had the chance to make a one-day trip to the South Pole. There, the cold weather gear they had been tricked into wearing on the first day became important with temperatures of negative 20 degrees and a wind chill pushing negative 30.
"They told us not to run because the South Pole is at 10,000 feet so it is super high altitude," Merrill said. "Everything is really flat, but it is over two miles of ice. So, you don't think you are at super high altitude, so we ran anyway, and we got there and were huffing and puffing trying to catch our breath.
"It was amazing being there at the bottom of the world," Merrill continued. "We were taking a bunch of pictures and on a really tight schedule and it didn't really hit us until after we got back on the plane and were flying away that we just did that."
While the purpose of the trip was education, two weeks on Antarctica also lended time to sightsee and enjoy a once in a lifetime experience. A week and a half in, after much hopeful searching, Merrill finally saw a penguin. Although it did nothing exciting, it was still one of those moments that brought home just where he was and what he was experiencing.
"We finally saw one just standing on the sea ice," Merrill said. "We watched it for like 20 minutes. It didn't do anything. It just stood there, in the snow and looked one way not moving at all. We thought it was the coolest thing ever."
The group also had the chance to take a hike to a formation called Castle Rock where they were able to take in a sweeping view of the continent. The vista enabled them to see the point where the ice meets the Southern Ocean and also take in the full-scope of Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano.
"It is incredible because it just raises 15,000 feet straight up," Merrill said of Mount Erebus. "You can see all the way to the top with the smoke billowing out of the caldera and you could look around and see the flat expanse of sea ice. Seeing that view was one of the most memorable things."
Merrill said that while he enjoyed learning about the science being conducted, his biggest takeaway from the trip was a newfound understanding of what it takes to survive and thrive in an inhospitable environment from a logistical and management perspective.