news and events » news

News Header

News Item

return to News

Smokejumpers and Antarctica

by Michael Hill (WYS 95) |

What connections do smokejumpers have with Antarctica? I once asked myself and now having spent a season down on the "Ice" I’ve discovered just what the link is. Antarctica offers a chance to a few selected individuals to work a handful of months in a truly unique environment. This past Antarctica summer three of us jumpers worked in the great southland, myself in helicopter operations, Nick Caple (MYC 01) firefighting and Cheri Dailey (MYC 99), driving a heavy loader. Two of us, myself, and Nick are about finished with our experiences for this summer yet Cheri is spending this whole year in Antarctica.

They say living in Antarctica is similar to living in outer space. Actually NASA occasionally comes to this frozen world to research the kinds of microscopic life-forms they are likely to find someday out beyond these skies. NASA also comes to Antarctica to study the effects of living in such harsh environments on our small tribes due to the perceived similarities between this isolated civilization and a long space journey.

I first became interested in Antarctica in 1996 when the United States downsized its military presence there. It was the fire season that I had taken off from the jumpers to helicopter rappel and during it I had first discovered from a recruitment drive within them of the birth of this unique opportunity to work with a private contractor employing a helicopter unit in Antarctica. Now its 2005 and I am the newest member of the American/New Zealand Antarctic helicopter program. What am I doing spending this icy summer down at the bottom of the world with our small fleet of helicopters?

I have been engaged as a helicopter technician for a private contractor with the National Science Foundation along with four other teammates. We rotate either as a flight crewmember on one of our five Bell 212s or A-Star helicopters or working on the ground to keep the steady passenger/ cargo lifeline moving. We fly out of McMurdo Station which is the largest research station in Antarctica and forty remote camps all located out on frozen sea ice fields, on the tops of ice bergs, amongst the slopes of an erupting volcano, along the floor of Dry Valleys that haven’t seen rainfall in millions of years and high on top of mountain peaks that poke up from mile deep blankets of snow.

Everyday when I am out flying missions with one of the pilots, we cruise over this extraordinary world of mountain ranges and sea ice flats cloaked in white. It is necessary on most days to wear sunglasses riding up in the cockpit of our aircrafts to keep from going painfully snow blind but then again, that is just one of the many ways we humans have adapted to live here in what is often considered to be one of the world's harshest environments.

Antarctica is one of the world's only continents that are almost totally covered in thick sheets of ice. This ice contains the climate records for the last several million years for earth along with 70% of the world's fresh water supply. If its ice were to melt then it has been estimated that half of the world's population could drown in the resulting rise in the ocean levels. These facts make Antarctica a special place but there are plenty of other reasons as well. All of the world's global cold air movements sink back to either Antarctica or the North Pole which explains its sometimes harsh conditions of dramatic storms and freezing winds. The Ozone layer in the earth's atmosphere above Antarctica has a huge hole in it due to pollution but from studies conducted here ways to reverse that process have finally been discovered and begun. Antarctica once had its own population of dinosaurs, and even massive forests before the sliding of geological plates beneath the earth's crust slowly moved the continent's land base from its former tropical location over to where it now sets at the world's southern Pole.

Antarctica may remain mostly frozen, but it does experience seasonal climate changes and long periods of time when the sun never sets, as in its summer, or doesn't come up for months on end in its winter depending on the earth's spinning tilt towards or away from the sun. Antarctica's frozen world may never have naturally supported its own human populations yet that doesn't translate to mean that the life existing in Antarctica hasn't still evolved its own independent circles. There are no Polar bears but large herds of penguins, seals and whales which migrate annually along the coastal regions, not to unlike the Elk do in the American West, as do a vast array of sea life and birds. Inland in places on Antarctica’s slopes of exposed soil you can enter into Dry Valleys not covered by ice, and actually, find inside all of this ice itself a countless micro-size chain of life abounds. Antarctica is far from being a dead frozen world.

Humans have only been exploring Antarctica for in the last few hundred years. The British Explorer, Captain Cook was among the first to prove its existence by sailing around parts this frozen coastline in 1773. Seal hunters and whalers followed, but it wasn't until the late 1800s to the 1930s that any serious attempts at exploring Antarctica's vast interior by land or aircraft were undertaken. Some of these explorers lost their lives in the quest to uncover Antarctica’s mysteries; today it's those early explorers who broke in and went beyond the frontiers of this harsh land who are often regarded as a type of idol within this glacial community. The American military came next and from the 1940s onward they firmly established their presence in Antarctica, mainly for cold war political reasons. The rest of the world has been coming here since these 20th Century events – Now in this new century, an extensive international Antarctic non-military scientific research role has developed, new discoveries are being made here every day. I'm learning that Antarctica and the human race are inexplicably linked. It's an awesome feeling to be standing with scientists themselves on some remote location watching first-hand at times as Antarctica reveals her secrets to us about the fragile world we share.

Scientist, working on grants each year, pour into Antarctica for research during its milder summer months to study this unique environment that's evolved around a world intertwined with ice. As for the American/New Zealand scientists, my small team, and our fleet of five American/New Zealand helicopters based out of McMurdo Station we ferry them and their precious research cargos around.
What is next for me? Soon I'm looking forward to defrosting in the warm breezes of the South Pacific. I feel those islands calling me on an adventure before I head back for one more season of jumping fires.

Those days will come soon enough I know, but for now at least here in the Antarctic there are still many new places and exotic life forms left to see, and even more so, plenty more precious cargo to transport everyday somewhere else out across all of this ice.