Field Update: Jan. 31, 2011

The T-5 fuel tanker MV Richard G. Matthiesen pulled up to the ice pier last night and began to offload its load of fuel to McMurdo shore tanks.

The MV Richard G. Matthiesen is a U.S. merchant ship (a T-5 tanker with a double hull that is ice strengthened) that is part of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. This ship is scheduled to be decommissioned later this year, but has made this trip to Antarctica before that happens. The Oden has made a channel through the sea ice that helps the tanker get to the pier.

McMurdo Station is the southernmost port on Earth and is the only port with an ice pier that is constructed each year to facilitate the delivery of fuel and cargo. A lot of the fuel that is delivered here actually ends up at South Pole station, which is resupplied from McMurdo. In the past the fuel has been flown to South Pole on LC-130 aircraft, but now the fuel is primarily delivered overland by the South Pole Traverse (SPoT) tractors, which each pull several sleds transporting large fuel bladders over long distance.

By early this morning you could see the change in the draft of the vessel – rising out of the water as the weight of the fuel was removed from the ship. The fuel transfer will take a few more days to complete.

Once the fuel delivery is complete this ship will set sail for points north and the next vessel will arrive at the ice pier to both deliver and receive cargo. The U.S. Merchant Marine and members of the armed services of the U.S. and New Zealand help to provide the resources and supplies needed to support these remote bases in Antarctica. It’s more economical to transport heavy equipment and supplies by ship than by air, so we’re all encouraged to send the bulk of the cargo by sea if we can, which makes good sense. The logistics are complex, but it all works and the jobs get done every year.

In a few more weeks the last ship will leave and the last flights will depart, leaving McMurdo and Scott Base to the winter-over teams – the people who will stay here through the long, dark winter until they are relieved after Winfly, the first flight south bringing people at the start of next season. The pace of life will slow down, and the snow will return to blanket the volcanic soil of Ross Island for another year.

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