Academy meteorology major spends Christmas in Antarctica

  • Published
  • By Ryan Hansen
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
Given the choice of spending ten days at home for Christmas or visiting one of the world's coldest locations is really not a hard decision for most people.

However, U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Joshua Linsell, a meteorology major here, is not most people. He skipped the annual Christmas gift giving affair for this once in a lifetime opportunity to visit Antarctica.

"This opportunity only presents itself to one senior in the meteorology major, so I jumped on it," he said. "I applied, made the cut, and spent countless hours in preparation to allow me to travel to the remote continent of Antarctica."

This annual education trip began in 2008 and is sponsored by the U.S. Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation.

Linsell started his journey to the bottom of the earth at the conclusion of finals. He flew from Denver to San Francisco where he boarded a 13-hour flight to Auckland, New Zealand.

Once there, Linsell took a quick hop to Christchurch where he met up with Naval Academy Midshipman Kierstin King, who would be his partner for the internship.

"We caught a bus to the city to tour the shops and see the damage from the earthquakes," he said. "Parts of the city were completely deserted."

From there the cadets met up with Guardsmen from New York's 109th Airlift Wing, who would provide their C-17 flight to McMurdo Station and act as hosts for the trip.

"The flight from Christchurch to McMurdo lasted about five hours," Linsell said. "The C-17 actually lands without skis on an ice shelf 25 miles from McMurdo where the ice is about 100 foot thick.

"The C-17 can only land at night when the ice runway surface is coldest because the ice gets too slushy to land during the day," he said. "Temperatures near McMurdo actually get into the 40s this time of year, so melting ice is a big concern. And since there are 24 hours of sunlight at 79 degrees south, night is when the sun is lowest and temperatures are coldest."

From the airfield, the cadets took a one hour drive to McMurdo Station, which is located on Ross Island, arriving at 3:30 a.m.

Following a nap, they went to lunch and got a tour of McMurdo Station from members of the Guard unit.

"McMurdo's population is between 1,000 and 1,500 during the summer and about 250 are with the Guard as pilots of the LC-130s, aircrew, maintenance or support," Linsell said. "When this Guard unit is not in Antarctica, it does a similar mission in Greenland in the northern hemisphere summer."

The two then visited Scott's Hut, which was made by one of the first Antarctic explorers, and on a short hike they spotted some Adelie penguins.

"It is a rare thing to see penguins near McMurdo, so many of the people there were jealous that we had seen them on our first day," Linsell said.

The next day the cadets got a personal tour of Crary Lab where they spoke with some of the leading scientists of major climate change studies, including one individual who oversees the only ice-core drilling project in the world.

"It was amazing to be in the presence of some of the most brilliant minds in science today," Linsell said.

The lab also featured a unique touch-tank where visitors could see and touch some of the sea creatures that they had collected.

"The water there is four degrees below zero because of the salt, so my hands literally started freezing after a few seconds in the water," Linsell said.

The two cadets then went hiking up Observation Hill where they could see for miles and miles in every direction.

"From the top we could see Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano, and all of the surrounding islands," Linsell said.

The next morning the two flew out to one of the camps on the mainland via an LC-130.

"We flew to a glacier in the Central Transantarctic Mountains and talked to the three scientists camped there before heading back," Linsell said.

After celebrating Christmas Antarctic-style, the cadets visited the weather shop on station where they were able to launch a weather balloon and talk to some of forecasters about the challenges of predicting polar weather.

Their day continued with a behind the scenes look at McMurdo including the reverse-osmosis water desalinization plant, the generator room and the sewage treatment plant.

The final portion of the trip was a stop at the South Pole. After waiting a couple of days for a flight, the cadets finally got on board where they would find temperatures of -18 waiting for them.

"The area around the Pole is very flat because the ice covers the terrain completely," Linsell said. "There are actually mountains underneath the ice, but the ice is packed so high that you cannot even tell."

When the two got back they learned their C-17 ride back to New Zealand had been cancelled due to predicted fog. So, because they had to stay for a tenth day, they were both eligible for the Antarctic Service Medal.

"I don't feel like I really earned the medal like the guys down there, but I will wear it as a reminder of the great men and women that serve in Antarctica from the New York ANG," Linsell said.

Looking back at the trip, Lisell said he is appreciative that he was given the opportunity to make the journey.

"Not many people get to go there, and much less get to have as much fun as I did in the 10 days that I was on the ice," he said. "I thank the physics and meteorology departments at (the academy) for giving me this wonderful opportunity."