Freezing Temperatures, Glacial Winds, Volcanic Dust: All in a Day’s Work for Times Team in Antarctica

Four of us made the trip: Graham Roberts oversees virtual-reality projects at The Times; Evan Grothjan has filmed Times VR projects on five continents; Justin Gillis is a climate reporter; and I am the graphics editor for the Science desk.


Evan Grothjan, left, Jonathan Corum, Justin Gillis and Graham Roberts.

Elaine Hood/U.S. Antarctic Program

We were confined to the station for the first few days, until we completed our orientation and field safety training. A mountaineer in a “Gut moose?” T-shirt showed new arrivals how to secure a tent on snow, drill an ice anchor, prime a camp stove and recognize hypothermia.

(One survival takeaway: If you’re ever stuck in a tent in remote Antarctica, don’t bother using your signal mirror for signaling. There’s probably nobody on the horizon to see your flashes, anyway. The best the mirror can do is keep you distracted by providing something interesting to look at: yourself.)

After training, we were allowed to leave the relative safety of the station and film ice in all its forms: the seasonal sea ice covering McMurdo Sound, the pressure ridges dotted with Weddell seals and their weaning pups, the Texas-size floating pancake of the Ross Ice Shelf, a cascading edge of the East Antarctic ice sheet, and more glaciers than we could count or name.

Video Feature

The Antarctica Series

Four virtual-reality films take you on, above and below the Antarctic ice.

OPEN Video Feature

Several McMurdo veterans told us that we saw more of Antarctica in two weeks than most scientists see in five years. We took that in part as a caution. All the logistics, fuel, resources and time devoted to us could have been spent elsewhere, on science. But we also took it as a challenge to recreate some part of our Antarctic experience and share it with our viewers, in virtual reality.

Our VR camera equipment is the best available, but not well suited for freezing temperatures, glacial winds, volcanic dust and military aircraft. We packed at least two of everything, including prototype cameras we used to take the first virtual-reality stereo footage ever shot in Antarctica.

Our main camera was a ring of 16 GoPros. Those cameras share a power source — a 25-pound block of lithium batteries that makes airplane security cringe and is awkward to lug across ice — but they don’t share memory, so Evan had to keep track of multiple sets of 16 tiny memory…

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