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McMurdo Station is a U.S. Antarctic research center located on the southern tip of Ross Island, which is in the New Zealand-claimed Ross Dependency on the shore of McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. It is operated by the United States through the United States Antarctic Program, a branch of the National Science Foundation. The station is the largest community in Antarctica, capable of supporting up to 1,258 residents, and serves as the United States Antarctic science facility. All personnel and cargo going to or coming from Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station first pass through McMurdo.
The station owes its designation to nearby McMurdo Sound, named after Lieutenant Archibald McMurdo of H.M.S. Terror, which first charted the area in 1841 under the command of British explorer James Clark Ross. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott first established a base close to this spot in 1902 and built Discovery Hut, still standing adjacent to the harbour at Hut Point. The volcanic rock of the site is the southernmost bare ground accessible by ship in the Antarctic. The United States officially opened its first station at McMurdo on Feb. 16, 1956. Founders initially called the station Naval Air Facility McMurdo. On Nov. 28, 1957, Admiral George J. Dufek was present with a U.S. congressional delegation during a change of command ceremony.
McMurdo became the center of scientific and logistical operation during the International Geophysical Year, an international scientific effort that lasted from July 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1958. The Antarctic Treaty, now signed by over forty-five governments, regulates intergovernmental relations with respect to Antarctica and governs the conduct of daily life at McMurdo for United States Antarctic Program (U.S.A.P.) participants. The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements, collectively called the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), was opened for signature on Dec. 1, 1959, and officially entered into force on June 23, 1961.
The first scientific diving protocols were established prior to 1960 and the first diving operations were documented in November 1961. A hyperbaric chamber is available for support of polar diving operations.
On March 3, 1962, operators activated a nuclear power plant at the station. The plant, like nearby Scott's Discovery Hut, was prefabricated in modules. Engineers designed the components to weigh no more than 30,000 pounds (13,608 kg) each and to measure no more than 8 ft 8 inches by 8 ft 8 inches by thirty feet. A single core no larger than an oil drum served as the heart of the nuclear reactor. These size and weight restrictions were intended to allow the reactor to be delivered in an LC-130 Hercules aircraft. However, the components were actually delivered by vessel. The reactor generated 1.8 MW of electrical power and reportedly replaced the need for 1,500 US gallons (5,700 L) of oil daily. Engineers applied the reactor's power, for instance, in producing steam for the salt water distillation plant. As a result of continuing safety issues, the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program decommissioned the plant in 1972. After the nuclear power station was no longer operational, conventional diesel generators were used. There were a number of 500 kW diesel generators located in a central powerhouse providing electric power. A conventionally fueled water desalination plant provided fresh water.
In 1974, the last LC-130 flight left in late February and did not return for regular service until the ice runway was operational in October. There was a single flight in early September (an LC-130 of VXE-6, Antarctic Development Squadron Six) to bring in US Navy support personnel to prepare the annual sea ice runway and to bring in mail and fresh vegetables. In August 1974, a New Zealand P3 Orion airplane flew to McMurdo and dropped mail via parachute and then returned to New Zealand. During this time, the residents' only contact with the outside world was via the Navy shortwave radio and teletype system, the military MARS radio system, and amateur radio, which allowed residents to talk to anyone by telephone via mainland amateur radio operators' phone patches.
Today, McMurdo Station is Antarctica's largest community and a functional, modern-day science station, which includes a harbour, three airfields (two seasonal), a heliport and more than 100 buildings, including the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center. The station is also home to the continent's only ATM, provided by Wells Fargo Bank. The primary focus of the work done at McMurdo Station is science, but most of the residents (approximately 1,000 in the summer and fewer than 200 in the winter) are not scientists, but station personnel who are there to provide support for operations, logistics, information technology, construction, and maintenance.
Scientists and other personnel at McMurdo are participants in the USAP, which co-ordinates research and operational support in the region. Werner Herzog's 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World reports on the life and culture of McMurdo Station from the point of view of residents.
An annual sealift by cargo ships as part of Operation Deep Freeze delivers 8 million U.S. gallons (6.6 million imperial gallons/42 million liters) of fuel and 11 million pounds (5 million kg) of supplies and equipment for McMurdo residents. The ships are operated by the U.S. Military Sealift Command but are manned by civilian mariners. Cargo may range from mail, construction materials, trucks, tractors, dry and frozen food, to scientific instruments. U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers break a ship channel through ice-clogged McMurdo Sound in order for supply ships to reach Winter Quarters Bay at McMurdo. Additional supplies and personnel are flown in to nearby Williams Field from Christchurch, New Zealand. A variety of fruits and vegetables are grown in a hydroponic green house at the station.
McMurdo Station is about two miles (3 km) from Scott Base, the New Zealand science station, and the entire island is located within a sector claimed by New Zealand. Recently there has been criticism leveled at the base regarding its construction projects, particularly the McMurdo-(Amundsen-Scott) South Pole highway.
McMurdo has attempted to improve environmental management and waste removal over the past decade in order to adhere to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed Oct. 4, 1991, and entered into force Jan. 14, 1998. This agreement prevents development and provides for the protection of the Antarctic environment through five specific annexes on marine pollution, fauna, and flora, environmental impact assessments, waste management, and protected areas. It prohibits all activities relating to mineral resources except scientific. A new waste treatment facility was built at McMurdo in 2003, that greatly exceeds the requirements of the treaty. McMurdo (nicknamed "Mac-Town" by its residents) continues to operate as the hub for American activities on the Antarctic continent.
McMurdo Station briefly gained global notice when an anti-war protest was held on February 15, 2003. During the rally, about 50 scientists and station personnel gathered to protest the coming invasion of Iraq by the United States. McMurdo Station was the only Antarctic location to hold such a rally.
Scientific diving operations continue with 10,859 dives having been conducted under the ice from 1989 to 2006.
With all months having an average temperature below freezing, McMurdo features a polar ice cap climate (Köppen EF). However, in the warmest months (December and January) the temperature may occasionally be above freezing. The highest temperature ever recorded was 10.5°C (50.9 Fahrenheit) on December 30, 2001.
|Climate data for McMurdo Station|
|Average high °C (°F)||−0.2|
|Daily mean °C (°F)||−2.9|
|Average low °C (°F)||−5.5|
|Precipitation mm (inches)||15.0|
|Source: Cool Antarctica|
For a time, McMurdo had Antarctica's only television station, AFAN-TV, running vintage programs provided by the military. The station's equipment was susceptible to "electronic burping" from the diesel generators that provide electricity in the outpost. The station was profiled in a 1974 article in TV Guide magazine. Now, McMurdo receives three channels of the US Military's American Forces Network, the Australia Network, and New Zealand news broadcasts. Television broadcasts are received by satellite at Black Island, and transmitted 25 miles (40 km) by digital microwave to McMurdo.
McMurdo Station receives both Internet and voice communications by satellite communications via the Optus D1 satellite and relayed to Sydney, Australia. A satellite dish at Black Island provides 20 Mbit/s Internet connectivity and voice communications. Voice communications are tied into the United States Antarctic Program headquarters in Centennial, Colorado, providing inbound and outbound calls to McMurdo from the US.
McMurdo is serviced seasonally by three airports:
A multitude of on- and off-road vehicles transport people and cargo around the area, including Ivan the Terra Bus.
Facilities worthy of note at the station include:
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