Sights and Sounds of Summer in the South

It’s January 17th, and we’re in Christchurch, New Zealand—about as far south of the equator as Rutgers is north of it. If you were holding a globe in your hands and looking at New Jersey, Christchurch would be all the way around the other side, near your pinky fingers.

All that you’ve learned about the Southern Hemisphere gets put into practice here: Early January is midsummer and we’re sweating in 90 degree heat. Cicadas are humming, birds are hopping around the lawns feeding newly fledged chicks, and gardens are in full bloom. If you watched a sundial, you’d see the shadow move counterclockwise instead of clockwise, and the sun is always off to the north of us.

Despite the heat, we spent the afternoon diving into our Extreme Cold Weather gear. Tomorrow we’ll be at 77 degrees south, where midsummer heat means 32 Fahrenheit, not 32 Celsius. By mid-February, when the expedition ends, it could be a lot colder than that—so we better make sure our gear fits.


As it turned out, we didn’t even get to take off, but it was because the weather has been too warm, not too cold. There’s no flat ground around McMurdo Station, so planes land on runways made on the sea ice. Recent above-freezing temperatures in McMurdo had left the ice slushy, wet, and too dangerous to attempt landing such a large plane. In a strange twist from normal, we’re actually going to wait until the coldest part of the day and hope that the runway ices up before we try to land. We’ll be taking off at 11 p.m. tonight and landing around 4 in the morning.

Soon after we arrive we’ll board our ship, the Nathaniel B. Palmer, where the expedition scientists will be hard at work getting their equipment installed so that we can get under way.

For now, we’ll soak up as much summer as we can. Here’s a recording to give you a sense of what it’s like to fly into New Zealand and emerge into the middle of summer. Listen closely, and you’ll hear a flight attendants’ greeting (in a pleasant New Zealand accent), a Christchurch tram heading into town, a group of Japanese taiko drummers giving an exhibition in the town square, a cicada with an incredible sense of rhythm, and the sweet, haphazard song of a bellbird, which is common in New Zealand but lives nowhere else in the world.

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And for teachers, you may be interested in exploring this map of the Ross Sea expedition of 1841. Almost exactly 160 years ago, Captain James Clark Ross explored this area in two 100-foot sailing boats—an incredible adventure that seems almost impossible by today’s standards. The map includes excerpts from Captain Ross’s journals and offers another way for you to get to know the Ross Sea. In a few days, we’ll be sailing these exact same waters.

We encourage you to follow us on Facebook—you’ll get notified when new posts are up, and you’ll see extra updates and photos from Chris and me during the day.

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Profile photo of Hugh Powell

About Hugh Powell

Hugh is a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is on special assignment with the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. He has previously written for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

5 Responses to “Sights and Sounds of Summer in the South”

  1. Profile photo of Laura Dunbar

    Thanks for the beautiful pictures! They’re a great addition to your blog. I so appreciate the details you’ve included. We all wish Ashley Needham success in his quarter campaign. I cringe when I think of how cold you’ll soon be. We’ll be here ~ waiting to hear from you and hoping you have a wonderful adventure. ~Ms. Dunbar, Sea Girt School

  2. i was wondering why you guys cant bring pets with you on this amazing journey

  3. Profile photo of Hugh Powell

    Laura, Thanks for the warm thoughts!
    Ricky, we can’t bring pets because Antarctica is a place like nowhere else – it has no native amphibians, reptiles, or mammals (except seals and whales). The only plants are a few lichens and aquatic mosses, and the birds are limited to two species of penguins, two petrels (a kind of seabird), and skuas (a kind of large, brown gull.) It wouldn’t be an enjoyable place for a pet, and having animals here could endanger the fragile balance of this unspoiled ecosystem. The early explorers brought ponies and dogs with them to help haul their sledges. But the dogs often got loose and attacked the penguins (or the curious penguins walked up to them) – not something we want to let happen. Better to leave the pets at home and look forward to seeing them when we get back.

  4. Why is you’r boat named the Nathaniel B. Palmer?

    • Profile photo of Hugh Powell

      Hi Skyler. Nathaniel B. Palmer was a sailor and shipbuilder who lived from 1799 to 1877. He was from Connecticut. He became a successful ship captain and spent many years hunting seals and whales, which back in the nineteenth century was a big business. He was one of the first people to set eyes on the continent of Antarctica. Over on the other side of the continent, near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, there’s a small U.S. research station that is also named for him.