McMurdo Station

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McMurdo Station
Research Station
McMurdo Station from Observation Hill
McMurdo Station from Observation Hill
McMurdo Station is located in Antarctica
McMurdo Station
McMurdo Station
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Continent Antarctica
Region Ross Island
 • Type Polar Research Organisation
 • Body United States Antarctic Program
McMurdo Station from above

McMurdo Station is a U.S. Antarctic research center on the south 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,[1] 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 HMS 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 February 16, 1956. Founders initially called the station Naval Air Facility McMurdo. On November 28, 1957, Admiral George J. Dufek was present with a U.S. congressional delegation during a change of command ceremony.[2]

McMurdo became the center of scientific and logistical operation during the International Geophysical Year,[2] an international scientific effort that lasted from July 1, 1957, to December 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 December 1, 1959, and officially entered into force on June 23, 1961.

The first scientific diving protocols were established before 1960 and the first diving operations were documented in November 1961.[3] A hyperbaric chamber is available for support of polar diving operations.[3]

Nuclear power 1962–1972

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 (14,000 kg) each and to measure no more than 8 ft 8 inches by 8 ft 8 inches by thirty feet (2.6 × 2.6 × 9.1 m). 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.[4] The reactor generated 1.8 MW of electrical power[5] and reportedly replaced the need for 1,500 US gallons (5,700 l) of oil daily.[6] Engineers applied the reactor's power, for instance, in producing steam for the salt water distillation plant. As a result of continuing safety issues [hairline cracks in the reactor and water leaks],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 in a central powerhouse providing electric power. A conventionally fueled water desalination plant provided fresh water.

1974 winter

In 1974, Mary Alice McWhinnie and Sister Mary Odile Cahoon became the first women to winter-over at McMurdo Station.

A 10K-AT "Adverse Terrain" forklift moves a loaded cargo sled as part of Operation Deep Freeze resupply mission

Contemporary functions

McMurdo Station in November 2003.

Today, McMurdo Station is Antarctica's largest community and a functional, modern-day science station, which includes a harbour, three airfields[7] (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 two ATMs, both 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 around 250 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.

The MV American Tern being led by the Russian icebreaker Krasin to McMurdo Station during Operation Deep Freeze 2006. Mount Erebus can be seen in the background.
The supply ship MV American Tern during cargo operations at McMurdo Station during Operation Deep Freeze 2007. The square building in the foreground is Discovery Hut.

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.[8] 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.

Between 1962 and 1963, 28 Arcas sounding rockets were launched from McMurdo Station.[9]

McMurdo Station is about two miles (3 km) from Scott Base, the New Zealand science station, and the entire island is 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.[10]

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 October 4, 1991, and entered into force January 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.[citation needed] Three Enercon E-33 (330 kW each) wind turbines were deployed in 2009 to power McMurdo and New Zealand's Scott Base, reducing diesel consumption by 11% or 463,000 litres per year.[11][12] 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.[13]

Scientific diving operations continue with 10,859 dives having been conducted under the ice from 1989 to 2006.[3]


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 place is protected from cold waves from the interior of Antarctica by the Transantarctic Mountains, so temperatures below -40° are rare, compared to more exposed places like Neumayer Station, which usually gets those temperatures a few times every year, often as early as May, and sometimes even as early as April. It also allows temperatures above 0 °C (32 °F) to be achieved quite often in the summer, unlike Neumayer Station, which very rarely gets above 0 °C, due to it being cooled by cold air masses from the interior. The highest temperature ever recorded was 10.5 °C (50.9 Fahrenheit) on December 30, 2001.

Climate data for McMurdo Station
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 8.3
Average high °C (°F) −0.2
Daily mean °C (°F) −2.9
Average low °C (°F) −5.5
Record low °C (°F) −15.0
Average precipitation mm (inches) 15.0
Average snowfall cm (inches) 6.6
Average precipitation days (≥ 1.0 mm) 2.6 4.7 3.2 4.5 5.5 5.7 4.7 4.1 3.0 3.2 2.4 2.5 46.1
Average snowy days 12.8 17.6 17.8 16.4 16.2 15.6 15.3 14.5 13.3 14.5 13.5 13.8 181.3
Average relative humidity (%) 66.7 65.2 66.6 66.6 64.2 62.4 60.2 63.4 55.8 61.4 64.7 67.0 63.7
Source #1: Cool Antarctica[14]
Source #2: NOAA (extremes and precipitation and snowy days data 1961−1986)[15]


This 1983 image of the USNS Southern Cross at McMurdo Station shows cargo operations on a floating ice pier. Such piers have been in use since 1973.

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,[citation needed] 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.[16][17] 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:


Ivan the Terra Bus

McMurdo has the world's most southerly harbor. A multitude of on- and off-road vehicles transport people and cargo around the station area, including Ivan the Terra Bus. There is a road from McMurdo to the South Pole, the South Pole Traverse.

Historic sites

Byrd Historic Monument
Nuclear reactor commemorative plaque

Byrd Monument: The Richard E. Byrd Historic Monument was erected at McMurdo in 1965. It comprises a bronze bust on black marble, 150 cm (5 ft) x 60 cm (2.0 ft) square, on a wooden platform, bearing inscriptions describing the polar exploration achievements of Richard E. Byrd. It has been designated a Historic Site or Monument (HSM 54), following a proposal by the United States to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.[18]

Nuclear Power Plant Plaque: The bronze plaque is about 45 cm × 60 cm (18 in × 24 in) in size, and is secured to a large vertical rock half way up the west side of Observation Hill, at the former site of the PM-3A nuclear power reactor at McMurdo Station. The inscription details the achievements of Antarctica’s first nuclear power plant. It has been designated a Historic Site or Monument (HSM 85), following a proposal by the United States to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.[18]

Points of interest

Facilities worthy of note at the station include:

Annotated view over the Station, also showing Scott Base and the McMurdo Ice Shelf

In popular culture


  • Werner Herzog's documentary, Encounters at the End of the World (2007), deals almost exclusively with individuals living at the McMurdo research station
  • Carrie Stetko, the main character of the 2009 film adaptation of comic book Whiteout (created by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber), works as a Deputy U.S. Marshal at McMurdo Station.
  • Anne Aghion's documentary, Ice People (2009), is an exploration of Antarctica with scientists Allan Ashworth and Adam Lewis researching the discovery of 13.9 million-year-old moss fossils and the proof of climate change with the help of the McMurdo Station Staff.


  • Sarah Andrews' mystery, In Cold Pursuit, is based in McMurdo Station.
  • In Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur, the novel's main character first works at McMurdo Station at a menial job, then later returns there in a very different role, leading a polar expedition to retrace the steps of Robert Scott. The author herself spent time in the station under a grant from the Antarctic Artists and Writers Foundation.[citation needed]
  • In William Brinkley's post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Ship (1988), McMurdo Station becomes the essential restocking point for an American-Soviet submarine crew of nuclear war survivors.
  • A portion of David Graham's post-apocalyptic novel Down to a Sunless Sea (1979) takes place at McMurdo Station.
  • McMurdo Station is mentioned in detail in Stel Pavlou's novel Decipher (2001), dealing with an ancient code left by the Atlantians to save the world.
  • In Matthew Reilly's thriller Ice Station (1998), McMurdo Ice Station is mentioned throughout the storyline.
  • The First Hundred colonists participated in training and screening at McMurdo Station before heading to Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.
  • Much of Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction novel Antarctica (1997) takes place at McMurdo Station.
  • In James Rollins' adventure-thriller novel Subterranean (1999), McMurdo Station is the resting/resupplying point of the archeology team before they head to, and into Mount Erebus. McMurdo Station also appears in Rollins' tenth Sigma Force novel, The 6th Extinction (2014).
  • Carrie Stetko, the main character of the comic book Whiteout (1998), created by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber, works as a Deputy U.S. Marshal at McMurdo Station.
  • Briar Lee Mitchell (author) thriller, "Walking on Mars - Destination Vostok" along with an entire series of short stories mostly taking place at McMurdo. The series focus on thrillers, some with a paranormal twist. The author visited McMurdo in 1994.


  • In Stargate SG-1, McMurdo is mentioned as a staging area for Earth's squadrons of F-302 fighters. Also in the same series, 50 miles (80 km) from the station is the location of Earth's second Stargate, left over from an ancient site that was once the location of Atlantis. Samantha Carter and Colonel Jack O'Neill are rescued by a team from McMurdo in the Season One episode "Solitudes".

See also


  1. 4.0 Antarctica - Past and Present
  2. 2.0 2.1 "US Antarctic Base Has Busy Day". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. November 29, 1957. Retrieved 7 July 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Pollock, Neal W (2007). "Scientific diving in Antarctica: history and current practice". Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine. 37: 204–11. Retrieved 8 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Rejcek, Peter (June 25, 2010). "Powerful reminder: Plaque dedicated to former McMurdo nuclear plant marks significant moment in Antarctic history". The Antarctic Sun. Retrieved June 16, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Priestly, Rebecca (January 7, 2012). "The wind turbines of Scott Base". The New Zealand Listener. Retrieved June 16, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Clarke, Peter McFerrin (1966). On the ice. Burdette.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Miguel Llanos (2007-01-25). "Reflections from time on 'the Ice'". MSNBC. Retrieved 2008-01-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Modern Marvels: Sub-Zero. The History Channel.
  9. "McMurdo Station". Retrieved 2012-08-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Moss, Stephen (January 24, 2003). "No, not a ski resort - it's the south pole". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 12, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Ross Island Wind Energy". Retrieved 2015-09-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "New Zealand Wind Energy Association". Archived from the original on 17 November 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Protest photos". PunchDown. Retrieved 29 August 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Antarctica Climate data and graphs, South Pole, McMurdo and Vostok".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "McMurdo Sound Climate Normals 1961−1990". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved February 19, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Optus D1 satellite to provide critical link to Antarctica and to help monitor our changing Earth. ” (September 20, 2007). Retrieved 2013-08-06
  17. Wolejsza, C.; Whiteley, D.; Paciaroni, J. (2010). “McMurdo Communications Architecture for Polar Environmental Satellite Data Retrieval.” Retrieved 2013-08-06
  18. 18.0 18.1 "List of Historic Sites and Monuments approved by the ATCM (2012)" (PDF). Antarctic Treaty Secretariat. 2012. Retrieved 2014-01-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Ross Island DGC". DGCourseReview. Retrieved 3 September 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Clarke, Peter: On the Ice. Rand McNally & Company, 1966
  • "Facts About the United States Antarctic Research Program". Division of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation; July 1982.
  • United States Antarctic Research Program Calendar 1983

External links