Tributes & Stories


A Navy Guy on "the Ice"

About the Author: Commander Darin Liston, ’91, is Political Military Advisor to the Office of Euro-Atlantic Security Affairs in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, U.S. Department of State. He will retire in July.

Last month, I was privileged to be Deputy Team Leader for a joint US-Russian Antarctic Treaty inspection in Antarctica. The U.S. had four members on the team and I was the only one with military experience, and the designated arms control inspector. At its inception, the Antarctic Treaty was in part an arms control treaty. In fact, it was the first multilateral arms control treaty allowing on-site unannounced inspections. It has been a resounding success in that and other respects, and the main focus of Treaty Parties’ activities now relates to science. This was also an important milestone for the U.S.: it was the first inspection we have ever done jointly with another Treaty party.

My U.S. inspection teammates were from the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) also here at State, and the National Science foundation (NSF). The Russian team members were from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian Antarctic Expedition. Our inspections were focused mostly on science and environmental protection, as well as station organization, logistics and other details of treaty compliance. My areas, in addition to military areas, included transport and communications. I also had a personal interest in their sustainability initiatives, since that is the area I am pursuing for a second career. While the work was interesting, I cannot deny that what really fascinated me was just being there. It was a rather balmy day when we arrived (just below freezing), but it turned into a snowstorm the next day, preventing us from flying in helicopters to the Italian station up the coast. Oddly enough, because of the extreme low humidity (supported by perpetual freezing temperatures), it doesn’t snow much there, and when it does, the wind whips it so hard that it doesn’t blanket anything – it drifts. That’s one reason why the stations are mostly built on pilings.

We didn’t waste our snowy day, however. First, we had a delicious breakfast feast (all you can eat, just like on Navy ships!) at the dining facility on the U.S.’s McMurdo Station on Ross Island. Everyone eating there MUST wash their hands before entering. Illnesses travel fast in isolated populations like the 1,110 or so summer residents of McMurdo. After some quick coordination, we drove over the hill to the New Zealand station, Scott Base. To me, the most interesting thing about the Kiwi base was the New Zealanders’ passionate adherence to environmental preservation; reduce, reuse and recycle was in obvious practice. The New Zealanders also had three giant wind turbines that provide enough power to supply their entire station and provide about 15% of the power required for McMurdo through a linked grid. The Kiwi base is a good model for anyone interested in sustainability. Standing on the shore of McMurdo Sound in front of Scott Base was the coldest I felt on the trip – or ever, for that matter. The wind was howling and the New Zealand flag was snapping, making it obvious why animals turn their backsides to the wind. Not that there were many animals to see on our trip – there were seals on the ice near the holes they use to get into the water, and skuas flying nearby, but I never did see any penguins. Their largest rookeries are further north, with better access to the water.

Since the sun was up all the time, it was hard to tell what time it was. (The next sunset will occur on February 21st, and even then the night will be brief, until the end of March.) If my stomach had not growled at meal times, I might have stayed up all night! Funny thing about McMurdo chow – they have midrats (midnight rations), also just like the ship. I felt right at home. The blackout curtains were very necessary to get any sleep. Just hope you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night, then see the light – near impossible to go back to sleep!

As far as the terrain went, our most interesting inspection was at Concordia Station at “Dome C” on the Antarctic Plateau at over 10,000 feet elevation. We flew up in a converted C-47 (military version of the DC-3) built in 1942. It was refurbished and given new engines about 10 years ago. It was extremely cold on the Plateau, -32 degrees F, without wind chill. Luckily it was not very windy, so it didn’t feel that cold in Big Red - our nickname for the excellent down coats we wore. Still, when I had to take off a glove to operate the small buttons on my camera, it only took about 30 seconds for the skin on my hand to feel downright painful from the exposure. Gloves back on! Oddly enough, the joint French-Italian station is so well insulated that because of the activities going on inside that generate heat (running the diesel generator, computers, cooking, body heat, etc.), and the constant sunshine, they had to open the windows to cool the place! I bet the 12 folks staying for the 9-month long winter won’t have to do that; not needing air conditioners sure improves your sustainability. Since I was the arms control representative on the team, I got to ask the station staff whether they had any firearms. They pointed to the smoke detectors and sprinklers in the ceiling and said “of course!” I guess that was lost in translation, but I did eventually get the right answer in the negative.

Our last inspection, at the Italian Mario Zucchelli Station, was a two-hour helicopter flight north along the coast from McMurdo. We passed gorgeous mountains, enormous glaciers, and not a single bit of vegetation. The station is located on the shores of Terra Nova Bay, which was largely free of ice. This makes it easier for their resupply ship, Italica, to make one more trip to the station before winter. Back at McMurdo, the resupply ships were waiting for the contracted icebreaker to clear the sea ice that blocked the way to that station’s ice pier. There was a sense of urgency in the science activities going on at Zucchelli. It’s a summer-only facility and there were numerous experiments and projects ongoing that needed to be set up to run automatically or concluded prior to the winter, which would arrive in about a month. The Italians, while proud of their station and the ongoing science, were also proud of the espresso they served us. Yum!

As I look back, the trip could not have gone much more smoothly. NSF and the US Antarctic Program (USAP) were extremely helpful and well prepared. The verification regime for the Antarctic Treaty provided the United States and the Russian Federation the opportunity to collaborate on something a little different for a change. A safe, secure and peaceful Antarctica is in our mutual interest, and all the team members, Russian and U.S., worked together in a great spirit of cooperation. For us, this was one small part of the “reset” with Russia, but hopefully, this is just the beginning of deeper cooperation in the future. After flying helicopters and Prowlers at sea for the majority of my Navy career, this was a fantastic way to bring that career to a close. Fingers crossed that next time I see some penguins!