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Antarctic express: A journey to the frozen continent

Marie Morrow, a marine transportation specialist with Military Sealift Command, poses for a photo in front of a ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules Jan. 10, 2023, at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (Courtesy photo)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — The sun loomed overhead as Marie Morrow stumbled off the aircraft. The frigid air pricked her exposed face, enveloping her in an insatiable chill. And the immaculate snow that blanketed the land glared upon her gaze. Nevertheless, Morrow continued despite the cold Antarctic greeting — excited for the journey to come.

Morrow, a marine transportation specialist with Military Sealift Command, embarked to McMurdo Station in January 2023 as part of U.S. Transportation Command’s Operation Deep Freeze, a joint military mission to resupply Antarctic research stations. During this, Morrow assisted with the logistics of the operation, ensuring the cargo arrived at one of the most desolate places on Earth.

Operation Deep Freeze supports the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency, in its Antarctic endeavors. Delivering these vital supplies to the scientists and staff who brave the frozen desert, enables them to investigate global environmental issues such as climate change, ozone depletion, rising sea levels, and more.

“[Operation Deep Freeze] is an amazing feat of logistics and a massive coordination between various entities, military branches, and partner countries,” Morrow said. “As part of the Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica, we have the Air National Guard organizing all the intra and intercontinental flights. The U.S. Coast Guard provided the Ice Breaker so the ships can reach McMurdo. The U.S. Army provided the Modular Causeway System for vessels to moor to. Then the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command provided two contract vessels with the Navy Cargo Handling Battalion moving the cargo. 

“But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the logistics, military and government agencies involved,” she continued. “The element of ice and lack of traditional port facilities also makes Deep Freeze a unique operation.”

All these components come together to keep the stations, researchers and staff, and equipment functional. For example, many of the vehicles used to traverse the ice are from the Korean War era and need routine maintenance; though, Morrow said that riding in a 70-year-old terra bus named Ivan was a highlight.

“Deep Freeze is such an amazing operation,” Morrow said. “There are so many elements that must come together to keep the station going. This was my first year, so the biggest challenge for me was getting my head around everything. For the first couple of weeks, I felt like a high school freshman wandering the halls, but it was great to see what it takes to make McMurdo a functioning scientific research site.”

McMurdo Station is one of only three full-time U.S. research facilities on Ross Island, mere miles from mainland Antarctica. However, 30 separate countries own and operate over 80 bases throughout the continent.

While not all these bases operate year round, they will support over 5,000 people during Antarctica’s summer — or winter for those above the equator. But when the six months of uninterrupted sunlight ends and the warmth with it, the remaining population falls to 1,000.

Though its summer months are mild, with the pole rarely exceeding -28.2 degrees Celsius (-18 degrees Fahrenheit), temperatures drop significantly as the continent enters six months of darkness. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2021 averaged -60.9 degrees Celsius (-77.6 degrees Fahrenheit) during this time.

“I think we’re in Antarctica for the same reasons we’re in space. In the name of research and exploration,” Morrow said. “The people here have a sense of pride — a special energy for the work they do. And I’m happy to play a part in it. Operation Deep Freeze was a great experience and I look forward to coming back next year.” 

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