A day of extremes: from the furthest south from the most remote

NASA ATom arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile, on the Straights of Magellan at 3am on Saturday. The 8h time difference from New Zealand, and losing a day on the ground due to our delayed departure from Christchurch rather threw most of us. I slept a few hours on arrival, then used Saturday morning to process data from the flight. This is important as we have to submit data to the NASA archive within 24h of landing each time, and also to check instrument performance more thoroughly than we can in-flight. It’s also helpful to look at the data with the flight fresh in your memory as it can help you to catch some of the science features.

I took a walk around the town with some colleagues, up the Plaza de Armas, past the Anglican Church with a plaque about Shakleton, to the Mirador on top of the hill to look over the town and out to the straight of Magellan, around some residential neighborhoods and then into the town center. It was a bright sunny day, but being 65S (check this) and very windy it’s still quite chilly here even in the middle of summer. We’d hoped the sunlight, fresh air and gentle exercise might help with the jet-lag. For me it was nice to be back in South America, having spent a little while living and travelling there a few years ago. Lots of the houses in Punta Arenas had very brightly colored walls and roofs, and the Plaza de Armas was full of life, both tourists and locals.

View over Punta Arenas, Chile (credit: Christina Williamson)
View over Punta Arenas, Chile (credit: Christina Williamson)

While Punta does feel like a bit of an outpost, just because of its geographic location, it clearly has quite a thriving tourist industry now and a lot of good food. We ate dinner at a wonderful place called La Marmita (if anyone’s in the neighborhood and looking for recommendations, go for that). Since the area gets a lot of rain, and with the sun at such a low angle, rainbows are very common there, and we saw some wonderful ones that evening.

The next day was our maintenance day on the plane, and I had some instrument servicing to do, so there was no time for further exploration. Patagonia is a region I’m dying to visit, so I felt some regret at being there and not seeing anything much of it, but that’s not why we’re here. There are some penguin colonies you can visit by boat direct from Punta Arenas and though we didn’t have time to do that, there was a huge flock of cormorants perched on an old pier right outside our hotel that I enjoyed watching.

Cormorants in Punta Arenas, Chile
Cormorants in Punta Arenas, Chile (credit: Christina Williamson)

Thankfully, with the jetlag, getting up at 3:30am for our flight to Ascension Island didn’t feel so bad. The hotel was kind enough to provide us breakfast at that horrendous hour, and then I did a long preflight, since it was cold and my instruments required the extra time to warm up. Thankfully everything went smoothly this time.

The flight to Ascension was interesting. Because it’s a long way and there are no nearby bail-out points with a runway long enough for a DC8, we have to conserver a lot of fuel on this flight for safety. This means doing fewer profiles than usual, and spending longer at high altitude. We saw a mix of air from Africa and South America as well as some northern hemisphere influences. This flight we’re quite interested in whether we see influence of biomass burning in Africa (since it’s the right season for it) and dust from the Sahara.

It was dark when we landed on Ascension at around 8pm local time, but still very hot and humid. Opening the aircraft doors a wave of warm, moist air hit us in the cabin, where most of us were still bundled up in many winter layers from the cold flight temperatures. We quickly adjusted clothing as much as we could as we did out post flight maintenance and checks. We were then bussed from the airfield to the US base, processed through immigration, given food and rooms on the base to sleep in.

View of the Strait of Magellan from Punta Arenas (credit: Christina Williamson)
View of the Strait of Magellan from Punta Arenas (credit: Christina Williamson)
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