"In town" Means McMurdo

    Panorama of McMurdo from Observation Hill
    Panorama of McMurdo from Observation Hill.

    The last few days of cloudy, snowy summer weather has kept us out of the Dry Valleys and away from our last sampling duties. This means that we've had some quality time to hang out and explore the many features and facets of life in town. For most of the people involved in US Antarctic Programs, a majority of time on the continent is spent "in town". McMurdo Station is as weird as towns go. McMurdo's population size can change 10x during the year. Local leaders and celebrities in September may be completely unknown to those living here in February. Each year everyone who lives here will have just come here or will leave. Although many come back regularly each season, and some may "over winter" after spending the summer here, no one is truly a resident. Even the penguins, seals, and skuas are temporary.

    The largest population is during the summer science season from October through February. This is when most research projects are being supported across the continent. McMurdo is a gateway for several Antarctic science bases. The New Zealand Scott Base and the US South Pole station are two of the biggest. The station provides almost every service you might find in a small town of its size: a hair stylist, pub, convenience store, radio station, yoga studio, craft room, coffee house/theater, climbing gym, public transportation, airport, nondenominational place of worship, healthcare facility, emergency services, and internet service provider.

    Tardigrade Tuesday is happening
    Tardigrade Tuesday is happening.

    McMurdo is a nice little town. There are tourist style attractions like historical sites, a trail system, a frisbee golf course, and there are events like open mic nights, trivia contests, clubs, a marathon, team sports, a speaker series, and even education classes. There is a strong art scene with works from noted artists who have been in residence here and work from overwintering welders or bored paint shop workers. Everywhere you look you see little bits of creativity.

    Then there are the things that make it not like a regular little town. Yesterday I saw someone walking by today and they had an apple and an orange. They held them out to show me, grinning from ear to ear. I asked where and they said "galley, just now." I changed course from wherever I had been going and headed to the galley. The first person I saw, I showed my fruit to. I said "galley" and they began running.

    Everyone is a scientist
    Everyone is a scientist.

    I should mention that there is a community within the town that is 12 hours off. I don't know it very well. They are special folks who rotate their clocks 12 hours from the rest of the world. Affectionately called "midrats", they keep shifts of cargo handling, building, and transporting happening when most of the town is in bed. They have their own breakfast at dinner time and go to the bar in the morning.

    Creativity abounds under the Antarctic constraints
    Creativity abounds under the Antarctic constraints.

    The people are not random. The population of McMurdo is made up of people who traveled thousands of miles from where they live to spend months supporting the scientific mission. Not to generalize but, I will. These are people who enjoy adventure. They are creative in the way they live their lives. They are talented and expert in their fields. They are curious about the world and have lots of interests. No one here is here by happenstance - the people are unique because they all chose, and in many cases, competed to get here. I am not sure that I could say that about another small town.

    Other Differences

    Other things that make McMurdo different from most towns:

    • Landscaping - It's all rocks. All the rocks are the same color. If you see a plant on an office desk, it's fake.
    • Sidewalks - Everyone walks to work but many people's work is driving massive machines.
    • Sense of time - Keep that watch handy because it's probably later than you think.
    • Dogs - Not a single nonhuman vertebrate running around this town.
    • Colored lights - on every building that tell you if you need to stay inside.
    • Food - Everyone eats three meals a day at the same place - The Galley.
    • Housing - All provided by the station.

    There are no private sales of land in Antarctica
    More abundant creativity - paint shop isn't really for sale.

    Thinking about buying a place down here for retirement? There are lots of ways to come to Antarctica but a real estate agent isn't one of them. McMurdo needs every type of worker a town would need. There are jobs for a huge variety of people who are interested and motivated to pursue them. Scientists, laborers, tradespeople, food service workers, bartenders, shuttle drivers, doctors, therapists, office managers, etc. all find their way here to experience the unique life of an Antarctican.

    McMurdo Station, Antarctica
    Weather Summary
    Too cloudy to fly
    Wind Speed
    Wind Chill



    McMurdo is such an interesting town. Thanks for sharing!

    Bill Henske

    It's kind of like college - dorms, dining hall, no electric/water/sewer bills- except everyone works instead of going to classes.

    Chris Smith

    Hey Bill!
    Looks like you're making the most of your time "in town" while the weather keeps you from sampling out in the Dry Valleys. We missed you here today for Wolf Shirt Wednesday... am I sensing that Tardigrade Tuesday may have a future into the rotation here?

    You mentioned colored lights on the buildings. Are these similar to the condition flags on the beach? Are there a series of different colors, or is it just an on/off situation? I read somewhere that sometime in January/February is the main re-supply time, vessel season, or something like that. Is that going on now, and perhaps responsible for the coveted orange you found in the galley?

    Bill Henske

    Hey Chris!
    The chance of running into other people with tardigrade shirts is much higher here. You are spot-on with your Antarctic life knowledge and if it were a Buzzfeed quiz your score would be "Emperor Penguin". The vessels are here delivering next years food and taking away this year's waste. They can't transport perishable food though (except frozen)
    The fruit is actually because of the much larger C-17 aircraft comes in this time of year- it has wheels instead of skids for landing and is much larger that the C-130. They shuttle in extra staff to help with the cargo loads and when they have extra room they put on oranges, apples and cabbage. The weather conditions start at Weather Condition III which is winds less than 48 knots, and wind chill temperature warmer than -75°F. Weather condition I is where everyone needs to remain in shelter. You deserve a sticker! See you soon.

    Miles Terelmes

    Mcmurdo definitely looks like a unique town. It also doesn't look like the kind of town you'd find in the Arctic.

    Bill Henske

    Hi Miles- You are right! Most towns have people who grew up there or are native to the area. Even the coldest arctic towns have people who are from there. Also, in the arctic there are more plants and animals. There are people here who come back every year though, so they know a lot about the town. The lead scientist (PI) on our project, Dr. Adams, has been here for 19 summers. The most I have heard is 30.

    Martin Colvin

    Is there a bowling alley? (Probably not, but it seems as if many important government facilities have something random and funny, like how there's a basktball court above the supreme court)

    Bill Henske

    Hi Martin- Thats hilarious. We were just talking about that. There was one for the last 50 years. They just tore it down last year because they thought it was structurally unsound. When they started to take it apart they realized it was still in good shape but by that time it was too late. They still have all the equipment in a storage crate in the warehouse area and I was told yesterday that in October or November they actually set it ip just outside. This station was set up by the Navy and when they set up bases there are certain things they add like theaters, bars and bowling alleys apparently. There is a gym and it even has a climbing wall. Much of the station is being redone since they buildings they put up originally were only meant to be there for 2-3 years (in the 1950's) so they are well past their expiration date.

    Henry Schneider

    I did not expect to see a grill.

    has anyone ever done a barbeque?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Henry- I noticed that too. I haven't seen anyone grilling but I've seen several grills. To get food you would have to get it from the galley staff. Everyone eats all of their meals there. There is no other way to get food (unless Dr. Dittrich sends you snacks in the mail) I know they will make you pizzas and birthday cakes if you ask so I suppose they could put together everything you'd need for a barbecue. None of the buildings have actual kitchens so it would be kind of inconvenient. Of course there is no charcoal either so every thing would be cooked with gas.I wonder how the grills got here. You have to request large items be shipped on a cargo ship months ahead of time or you have to bring it on an airplane.

    Kaya Staten

    My family is tired of me talking to them about "our science teacher in Antarctica" (lol)
    But this is all so fascinating! I've spent more time than I care to admit Googling and watching YouTube videos about Antarctica and McMurdo Station because prior to now, I had no idea that anyone could visit there! Can the average person pay to go there just for the heck of it or do they only allow scientists and other workers who keep the town running? Is there a police station or do they even have a need for one? I can't wait to hear all about your adventure when you return.

    Bill Henske

    Hi Kaya- Lol. I do the same thing and then wind up in the middle of a Russian base on google earth 2 hours later. The best way to get to McMurdo would be as an employee of the Antarctic Services Contract. They do all the hiring for everything from plumbers, kitchen staff, custodians, shuttle drivers, field camp operators, etc. Tourists aren't really allowed to visit the station and getting here on your own would be pretty hard. There was a cruise ship that came in and shuttled people to the Scott's Hut historic site (https://nzaht.org/conserve/explorer-bases/scotts-hut-hut-point/) one night. I know there are a few adventure outfitters who have permits to bring adventurers to the continent but Im thinking that is really expensive. There is a visitor site, for example, in the Dry Valleys but you would need your own helicopter and crew and ship to support it.
    No police or security here- the station manager is a deputized law enforcement agent but I have not heard of anything requiring that. The managers in each program are responsible for rules being enforced so they are kind of like police. If their people get in trouble, they get in trouble so there is a huge incentive to make sure everyone you are responsible for is a good person. People who "get in trouble" are put on a flight home and banned from returning (along with prosecution for whatever American laws they broke). Everyone here has passed layers of health and background checks so I think that makes stuff easy.

    Norah goetz

    why is there a giant firebreathing t-rex on the building in the 4th pic? also hope you're having fun!

    Bill Henske

    Hi Norah- There are a lot of creative people here who like to express themselves and make a fun environment for others. Honestly, especially in winter, McMurdo would be pretty dismal. There are no plants, animals, etc. Just rocks and the human junk needed to live here. I think things like the TRex lift peoples spirits in the bleak environment.

    Maddie Phillips

    Why doesn't it rain in Antarctica?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Maddie- it is always too cold for rain. Even at that, there is so little moisture in the air that it barely snows either. In order to get moisture in the air, it needs to evaporate. All the air over Antarctica just circulates around Antarctica as Earth spins- very little moisture is added. When it is it is frozen and piles up on the polar plateau. Antarctica gets some of the lowest precipitation of any place on Earth. It is called a polar desert.

    Alec Richason

    While you were at McMurdo. Wads there anything there that was part of any culture, something that was not in the journal?
    Have a good time there!

    Bill Henske

    Hey Alec! Yes- One nice thing is that when people leave Antarctica everyone goes to the TerraBus to wish them well and way them good bye. Different groups of workers also have their own things they do. Helo pilots all go by nicknames, for example. One science team always did a dance anytime there was a helicopter coming so when we stayed in camp with them we would go out and floss whenever a helo was coming or leaving.

    Maelyn Owen

    What kinds of animals live in Antarctica? How cold can the water get?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Maelyn- interesting. Water freezes at 0 celsius but in most cases there are lots of minerals dissolved in the water which lowers its freezing point a lot. Some lakes have water that is -7 C - which should be frozen if it was pure water.

    sebastian depieto

    was it a good vacation

    Bill Henske

    Hi Seb- I guess if you work 80 hours a week during vacations. It is a lot of work. It is really cool and usually fun but also very challenging and sometimes mentally and physically draining.

    Christine Ryan

    what is your favorite place you've been to in McMurdo?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Christine- My favorite place is Hut Point. It is where Robert Scott built his first overwinter base in 1901. I haven't been in the hut but the overlook is really cool with a great view of the sound and the Transantarctic mountains and occasional penguins.

    cameron bell

    what kind of food is there

    Bill Henske

    Oh Cameron- Every kind! There are at least 2 deserts every meal. Fresh cookies everyday. A soft serve ice cream machine. Gatorade machine. There is always at least 3 entrees, a sandwich bar, cereal dispensers, pasta dish, cold salads, always hotdogs/corndogs, fresh pizza at lunch and dinner. Fresh made bread. You would never leave. Downside: There are never fresh vegetables. Sometimes cabbage. We have had apples and oranges once since I got here.

    Stephanie Dickmann

    It's cool to see how McMurdo station is different - and similar - to where I live. Sometimes it feels like McMurdo is some sort of resort for adventurous scientists. Also, do fresh fruit (and vegetables) act as a high form of currency or some sort of treasure? they are clearly rare items to have in stock.

    Bill Henske

    Thats interesting, Steph. Resorts have a lot less work and you can sleep in and then decide what you feel like doing each day. The best scientists though are the ones that wake up each day wanting to do the same things they need to do.
    Yesterday I saw someone parading around an avocado. She wasn't eating it, just walking around showing it to people. I heard a rumor she had gotten it from the ship captain who had brought it for his friends from the previous year. This is called a "Freshie" and is a highlight for many- especially those that have been here since October (or even more for the few brave souls who have been here since last March)

    Darby Miller


    McMurdo looks pretty fascinating. I was wondering what mammals live near McMurdo?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Darby- The most common mammal is the Weddell seal. They live on the sea ice - often really far from the open ocean. All they need is a small hole to squeeze through. This protects them from orcas because orca cant get air through the little seal holes.


    what mammals live near McMurdo?


    How long can you go outside with only shorts and a t-shirt?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Eliza- The average high temperature is in the 20s - so about like a very cold day in St. Louis. In town you see people in shorts and t shirts walking around but they aren't hanging around outside. They might be going to the gym or popping over to breakfast but most people are dressed in layers. People who work outside always dress warmly.

    Yvie Zamora

    What's it like sleeping there? I know the Sun stays up for a really long time, do you need some kind of special tent or curtains so you can actually sleep?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Yvie-
    When Im out in a tent I sleep with a beanie over my eyes. Keeps it pretty dark. It'll slip off my head in the middle of the night though and I'll jump up thinking I overslept, only to see that its 2 in the morning. In town, in the dorms, the windows all have blackout shades that keep the rooms very dark if you are trying to sleep. The light does trick you brain into staying active so it's easy to not get to bed on time so you have to be careful.


    Do you have pizza???

    Bill Henske

    Hi Xander
    You can get pizza any time of day in town. It is made fresh for lunch and dinner and the leftovers are wrapped and put in a big communal fridge for anyone who needs a snack later. If you are in the field you might be able to convince the helo pilots to fly you out some fresh pizza if their flight is going by your camp.

    Adaliris Reta-Amaya

    Have there been any snow storms? How many people have you met?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Adaliris-
    There have been a few snowstorms but they tend to go from side to side instead of up to down. There is very little moisture in the air so the most snow we have gotten was 3 inches and it blew away/evaporated within a day.
    I have met lots of people here including scientists, graduate students, fire fighters, cargo handlers, doctors, food service, a chaplain, divers, helo pilots, recyclers, waste water managers, construction workers, janitors, store clerks, national guard pilots, plumbers, meteorologists, geologist, safety technicians., mountain guides, camp hosts, therapist, postal worker, recreation specialists, and even an artist. I met probably 100 people by name but there are about 1000 people in McMurdo during the summer so it would be a lot longer before I met them all.

    Lila Rothenberg

    How does your station get food, and what kind of food is it? Does it taste good after being transporting such a long distance?

    Bill Henske

    Hi Lila-
    Almost all of the food is brought in on a giant freighter each summer (February) Its all frozen and kept frozen throughout the year. You would be surprised how old the food you eat at home might be. If you eat an apple this week it was probably picked in October. The food in Antarctica is good, considering, and there is always a lot to eat with lots of choices. By the time food gets made in Antarctica it is usually already reached its first birthday :) Sunday brunch, for example, might have omelettes, beef tenderloin, various casseroles, desserts, cheeses, fresh yogurt, fresh baked cookies (my favorite), etc. The only things we don't often have are fresh fruit or vegetables- those have to come in on a plane. Planes are usually for transporting people and much more expensive for shipping food. Also fresh vegetables won't last long so they can't just stock up.