Antarctica is a beautiful but harsh continent. No matter your training or preparation, the cold, wind and snow makes delays and mechanical failures unavoidable. When I was down in McMurdo station to help with the third and final year of the ROSETTAIce survey flights, bad weather and plane parts breaking nixed the majority of our planned flight opportunities. We were down on the ice with available flight time for thirty days, and with round-the-clock flights that totalled to over fifty ‘flight opportunities.’ In the end, after all the complications, we completed fourteen flights. I was the field blogger for that season, writing for Columbia University’s ‘State of the Planet’ blog (http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/features/decodingthemysteriesoftherossiceshelf/) and while I was honored and excited to be able to chronicle my experiences for people to read, it was sometimes tough being the public face of a field season during which numerous delays occurred.
Writing a regular blog in the field will always be tricky. When things are going smoothly in the field, you work nonstop and there is little time to sit and write. When fieldwork is halted and you find yourself in a state of “hurry up and wait,” there is plenty of time to write, but nothing going on about which to write. Additionally, being in a remote, nightless environment on a strange sleep schedule and trapped inside without anything to do, I found my emotional state in flux—an additional hurdle I was not expecting. Despite these challenges I tried my best to maintain a positive, calm tone in my writing and to give the impression that the project was progressing on schedule. I wanted to share my first field season in Antarctic with my readership, and was encouraged to speak to both my personal experiences and nonwork activities, as well as to record the scientific work being conducted in the field. Compared to the emotional detachment of a scientific progress report, the personal tone of my blog permitted me to describe some of our vicissitudes, the joys and the frustrations we felt. I could share my excitement and awe with my audience, and when we faced difficulties that also meant I could also describe some of my personal reactions to what was going on. Within the context of my own personal experiences, I could describe my worry while we waited during bad weather or my exhaustion from a week of fourteen-hour workdays. As long as I kept the framing of the text around me and my emotions, while never zooming out to show the anxieties of the entire science team, I could show some of our difficulties to the readership without upsetting the leaders and sponsors of the project.
Being at an Antarctic research station also brought with it unique concerns. As McMurdo Station is government funded and military supported, there are topics that are forbidden to be covered without permission. A blogger like myself cannot publish about the management or budget of the station or interview people for publication without the permission of the media office. They also do not like writers describing drunkenness or any other individual behaviors that reflect poorly on the station as a whole. These rules are taken seriously, and I heard stories of writers who got in trouble or were even removed from McMurdo for breaking them. Knowing this, I was not too tempted to push any boundaries. There was tension between ROSETTAICE and the airfield management when flights were cancelled because of predicted storms that never appeared, but even at the time, we recognized that their priority was keeping us safe. Complaining would have reflected poorly on our project team, could have put me in trouble, and just would not make an interesting read.
I benefited from having prepared a list of possible blog topics to fall back on before going into the field. It enabled me speak to my editor about intended audiences and messages of the blog, to create some sense of thematic and narrative unity throughout the season, and to establish a schedule for posting. In my case, the blog was intended for a nonscientific audience, with a reading and science literacy level of early high school. As this was the final field season of a multiyear project, the focus would be on preliminary results. I knew going in that I would be writing weekly, that the posts would be between a page and two pages, and there would be a post introducing the project, posts describing our daily schedule and activities, and a conclusion post. In weeks of delays or during periods when nothing interesting occurred, I could draw from my list and reduce the amount of scrambling around to find a topic. I read about Antarctica and its history of exploration quite a bit, and I have read countless papers about Antarctic science, so there was a lot to draw from when I sat down to write a list of possible blog post topics. Also, putting our difficulties into a context allowed me to find a balance between telling the truth of our fieldwork difficulties and maintaining an image of organization and control. When our departure from New Zealand to Antarctica was delayed by a week, I wrote about the history of crossing the Antarctic Circle, and how many others faced similar travel delays. When record-breaking snowfall kept the survey planes grounded for over a week, I wrote about how it was unusual and record-breaking for so much snow to fall in a polar desert, and segued into a discussion of weather patterns and climatology of the region we were studying.
I returned from Antarctica happy with what I was able to accomplish. I certainly made mistakes, but my blog posts were widely shared and people responded positively. If I could impart any wisdom upon others planning to blog from the field, it would be to start off as organized and prepared for blog writing as possible, to keep a level head, and to always be mindful of who might be your audience. When fieldwork in the polar regions inevitably halts because of some sort of difficulty, at least the blog posts will be able to be delivered on schedule.