Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Big Read: A to Z guide to the Antarctic

Herald science reporter Jamie Morton has travelled to Antarctica and is filing regular stories, along with a series of diary entries. Here is his fifth.
Herald science reporter Jamie Morton in the Antarctic
Herald science reporter Jamie Morton in the Antarctic

"A" is for "AFT": Antarctic Field Training is the newcomer's introduction to the frozen continent and covers everything from how to board a helicopter properly to how to construct a field kitchen out of ice bricks. As it typically involves camping on the ice overnight with an instructor, it's an unforgettable experience and veteran Antarcticans think back on it with fondness.

"B" is for "Boomerang": Getting "boomeranged" means that the C17 Globemaster or C130 Hercules you were to catch from Christchurch or Scott Base has been cancelled, or your name has been dropped from the fly list, so it's another day - or five - before you finally jump on the big bird. A "boomerang bag" is usually filled with a couple of days' supplies, as the rest of the luggage you checked in at the pre-departure "bag drag" can't be processed twice.

"C" is for "Con One": Condition One storms are some of the fiercest on the planet and to experience one is to witness nature's wrath in its fullest fury. Temperatures will drop below minus 73C and winds reach well over 100km/h. Any movement outside of base, save for Search and Rescue parties, is banned.

Condition Three weather - unbearably cold by any other measure - is considered normal in Antarctica.

"D" is for "Dehy": Depending on who you ask, dehydrated meals are either a bane or a beauty of field expeditions. After a long day's traveling on the ice and setting up camp amid a snow storm, a dehydrated meal in a sachet - exotic as sweet and sour lamb and beef curry - are a quick and easy way to feed yourself. Set up a field stove, boil a billy, add boiling water to the sachet, keep the lid closed and wait for 10 minutes before eating. Those 10 minutes can be some of the longest on Earth.

One of the US Air Force LC-130 cargo planes that make regular runs to the ice. Photo / Jamie Morton
One of the US Air Force LC-130 cargo planes that make regular runs to the ice. Photo / Jamie Morton

"E" is for "Emperor": Antarctica's best known charismatic megafauna, these are to the bottom of the planet as polar bears are to the top. They're the tallest, heaviest penguin species on Earth and are famous for making trips to breeding colonies tens of kilometres across the ice. If your trip to Scott Base is short, you'd be incredibly lucky to see one: the nearest colony is Cape Crozier, 40km away.

"F" is for "Flipper Bash": According to an unintentionally hilarious educational poster in the AFT training room, approaching an angry penguin may result in you getting "flipper bashed". An angry penguin is distinguishable by its flattened forehead, staring eyes and stamping (not happy) feet, and is not to be approached. See also: distressed penguin, disturbed penguin and happy penguin.

How to spot penguin behaviour.
How to spot penguin behaviour.

"G" is for "Grumpy": Technician Keith "Grumpy" Roberts is a legend around Scott Base and is held to possess the record for the most time on the ice - a couple of thousand days.

"H" is for "Hagg": The Swedish-built Hagglunds tracked carrier is the workhorse of the Antarctic, though riding one across sea ice isn't the most enjoyable experience. "H" is also for "Helo", or helicopters, the gold standard mode of transport. But as flights are often cancelled or booked up, it can be a tough job getting a spot on one. New Zealand operates one while the Americans fly a handful from nearby McMurdo Station.

"I" is for "Ivan the Terra Bus": The moment you step off your flight and on to the ice, Ivan the Terra Bus is there to greet you. It's a transporter that makes runs between the airfield and Scott Base and McMurdo Station. On the way in, you get treated to some of the best sights on Antarctica: including the McMurdo Dry Valleys and Mt Erebus.

"J" is for "Jase": The base's resident helicopter pilot - Jason Laing of Southern Lakes Helicopters - is highly regarded at Scott Base for his flying skills in what is one of the most dangerous places in the world to operate a chopper. A veteran of missions on Mt Everest - including the search and rescue effort that followed the 2014 avalanche there - he recently received the Helicopter Association International's Appareo Pilot of the Year award.

The whiteboard outside the Scott Base dining room is a constant newsfeed for what's going on in and outside the base. Photo / Jamie Morton
The whiteboard outside the Scott Base dining room is a constant newsfeed for what's going on in and outside the base. Photo / Jamie Morton

"K" is for "Kress": These are gigantic mining vehicles, painted in the red shade of USAP's colour, that have been modified to ferry scientists and base stuff from Williams's Field to McMurdo Station when the sea ice becomes tough to negotiate. They more or less resemble a long, flat building block suspended between two huge wheels. A trip in one isn't to be wished for.

"L" is for "Loadmaster": These are the friendly characters that ride with you in the holds of enormous US C-17 Globemasters or C-130 Hercules that fly from Christchurch to Antarctica. Clad in flight suits, they regularly walk around cargo hold ensuring everything's working and secure. It pays to watch them for hand signals when the ride gets bumpy.

"M" is for "Mac Town": The term for McMurdo Station that's around a five-minute ute drive from Scott Base. Resembling something halfway between a mining town and a supply depot, it's huge and its 1200-strong population dwarfs Scott Base's meagre 80. Still, the chirpy Americans love walking the road over to Scott Base to shop at the gift store. They're also grateful for a ride if you're passing by.

"N" is for "Night Flight": These are scheduled flights out to remote areas during the night - although it's still bright outside at 2am. If you're in a room with a scientist booked to go on one, it's best to avoid making a noisy entrance into it during the daytime, or you're likely to wake them up and incur their wrath.

"O" is for "Observation Hill": This conical mountain between Scott Base and McMurdo Station offers breathtaking views over both sites, and across the McMurdo ice shelf to Williams Field and far-away mountains. Often you'll spot game Americans walking around its spiralling track wearing little more than jeans and a jacket.

"P" is for "P-lab": This is the room in Scott Base where pee bottles filled in the field - you're not allowed to urinate in Antarctica's pristine environment - are treated with iodine and made ready for re-use. See also: poo buckets.

Antarctic p-bottles
Antarctic p-bottles

"Q" is for "Q Hut Ninja": On Scott Base's "Q Hut" block, where most visitors stay, you're encouraged to move among the corridor with the stealth skills of a ninja, so as to not wake people up. This means leaving your shoes outside the door, not talking in the hallway, silently hauling yourself up on to the top bunk and avoiding noisy things like chip packets.

"R" is for "Roll Cage Mary": Also known as "Our Lady of the Snows Shrine", this is a memorial to Richard Thomas Williams, a Seabee who died during the initial construction of McMurdo Station when his D-8 tractor plunged through the sea ice. Nearby Williams Field is also named after him. The memorial gets its name from the cage-like structure that surrounds the statue of the Virgin Mary.

"S" is for "Sked": Not making your daily "Sked" - or pre-arranged scheduled radio check-in with base communications operators - might mean you get half the continent out looking for you. It usually involves a weather update, a check on health and any incidents and a brief of the day's events.

"T" is for "Trayed": This is Scott Base dining room lingo for unexpectedly getting caught with three trays of dirty dishes to wash in its industrial-size dishwasher. The expectation is that when one tray is filled with dishes, you slide it under the washer, lower it and press the button. So when there's three full trays parked up, you don't want to be the person who gets hit. "Bloody hell, I've been trayed" is a common thing to hear in the dining room. T also stands for "T3" - the mysterious brain-fade that occurs in winter-over staff, some of whom suddenly have trouble adding up simple equations or remembering everyday words like "jacket".

Herald reporter Jamie Morton at Scott Base.
Herald reporter Jamie Morton at Scott Base.

"U" is for "Understanding": It's the common thread of scientific efforts on the ice - understanding how Antarctica is gradually changing because of climate change, how it has done so in the past, and what it means for the rest of the planet. Projects have ranged from the huge ANDRILL collaboration, where a team of over 100 scientists drilled deep below the ice to recover ancient core samples, to flying UAV drones around to map the Antarctic environment in 3D.

"V" is for "VHF": Very High Frequency radios are used for short treks, like a stroll out on the sea ice or a walk to Square Frame Hut a couple of kilometres from Scott Base. HF or high frequency radios - whose signals are bounced off the ionosphere up to 100km/h above the Earth - can be used to contact anyone, anywhere on the planet.

"W" is "Winter Over": It takes a special kind of person to voluntarily spend half the year at Scott Base - much of it in perpetual darkness and amid the worst weather on the planet. Across the hallway from the base dining room you can find framed group photographs of every team that's done it since Sir Edmund Hillary and his mates stayed over in the original Scott Base they built in the late 1950s. Between 10 and 20 staffers typically do it each year and despite the space-like isolation, they manage to keep spirits up with team activities and visits over the hill to McMurdo Station.

McMurdo Station, the US outpost over the hill from Scott Base, is staffed by around 1200 people over summer. Photo / Jamie Morton
McMurdo Station, the US outpost over the hill from Scott Base, is staffed by around 1200 people over summer. Photo / Jamie Morton

"X" is for"Extreme Cold Weather" gear, or ECWs: Typically a bulky down jacket, overalls, big boots, leather gloves, cap, balaclava and several layers of thermals, fleeces and wind-breakers. If you're going out of base, it's a must. You also need to wear it all when boarding a flight, so trudging through Christchurch International Airport in a heavy down jacket during summer can be somewhat of a head-turner.

"Y" is for "Yoga": Fitness activities make up much of the recreational calendar for Scott Base staff and early-morning yoga sessions are presently the big thing. Otherwise there's crossfit, ab work-outs, indoor rock-climbing, movie nights and a game of pool in The Tatty Flag bar, where foolishly ringing the bell means it's your shout.

"Z" is for "Zapped": The incredibly dry atmosphere of Antarctica combined with the static-making corridor carpets actually makes you a walking power transformer. Staffers thoroughly enjoy shocking unsuspecting newcomers in the hallway with a high-five, or creeping up on each other for a static-charged tap behind the ear.

- NZ Herald

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