It’s mid-morning on a Tuesday, and bad weather has delayed or shut down most science operations around McMurdo Station. Helicopters and planes aren’t flying, which means most field parties aren’t moving around.
The only radio chatter is coming from “B-009,” the designation for a team of scientists monitoring Weddell seals on the sea ice. The group is on snowmobiles, preparing to depart its field camp.
The familiar call comes over the radio: “MacOps, MacOps, this is B-009 departing …”
McMurdo Communications Operations, better known as MacOps, is the nerve center for radio traffic between the research station and field parties as close as B-009 on the sea ice and as far as field camps hundreds of miles away.
For scientists in the field, MacOps serves as a lifeline in case of an emergency. But it’s more than that: It’s a crossroads of information when other sources about things such as weather and flights aren’t available. A constant stream of messages – as mundane as details on outgoing cargo or as personal as the birth of a niece back in the United States – pass through MacOps on a daily, an hourly basis.
“I really feel like we have our finger on the pulse – we know what is happening when,” says Sage Asher, one of four operators hired each austral summer to monitor the various lines of communication at MacOps, located in a two-story office complex simply known as Bldg. 165.
In a way, one can measure the heartbeat of the field season from the MacOps radio traffic. In the early weeks, most of the communication comes from field parties working on the nearby sea ice, such as biologists studying seals or atmospheric scientists analyzing air samples.
Soon helicopters start flying, ferrying people to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, a polar desert ecosystem studded with ice-covered lakes and wild geologic formations. Then planes begin taking scientists even farther afield, to glaciers and ice shelves and distant mountain peaks.
“It’s fun because we have different tempos depending on the time of season,” notes Shelly Campbell, McMurdo Station communications supervisor who started working in the U.S. Antarctic Program in 1996-97 as a general assistant. She joined MacOps the following year and – except for a five-year stint working in South Pole communications – has been in the department ever since.
At the peak of the field season – when the pulse is racing the fastest – MacOps can be tracking more than 30 field camps with 200 people or more at one time. There could be dozens of field check-ins and other radio and email traffic to monitor.
“It’s those days that make the job fun,” says Alyssa Hartson, a MacOps operator from Alaska in her second season in the department. “The hard days are when those camps don’t need anything and there’s not a lot of information coming through.”
Source:: Antarctic Sun Featured Articles