Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reflections on Ice - Season End

The summer season at McMurdo is quickly winding up. Our annual resupply vessel, the American Tern, will be here in three days. After a whirlwind of activity off-loading the vessel, then reloading it with items to be returned to the U.S., the station will begin quickly sending home those people who are not staying for the winter season. The term used for working a winter is "winter over", as in "Are you wintering over?" or "Did you winter over last year?".

I am scheduled to redeploy on 11 February. I will fly back to Christchurch, NZ on a C-17 jet just like the one on which I arrived. There are some significant travel plans and I will continue to update the blog as I visit New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia. 

My experience in Antarctica has been transformative. The continent, this environment, is majestic yet harsh. It is alluring though challenging. I am continually impressed by the people I meet here. Everyone has a story, a life journey that includes working and living in Antarctica. I have been privileged to become very good friends with a small group of diverse individuals. They include managers of significant departments, an electrician, and a firefighter. The Wednesday evening Bridge group, which played its last game two days ago, started as students. I taught them how to play the game over six weeks. We have been playing weekly ever since. It warmed my heart that "Reefer Bob" (the refrigeration technician) told me he already located a group with whom to play Bridge when he gets home next week. It is my hope that Pedro the Food Monkey, Greg the Electrician, and Marci the Sous Chef continue playing too.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Room With A View

Yesterday I was treated to a morale trip up the side of Mt. Erebus. You might remember from earlier posts that Mt. Erebus is an active volcano that is on the Ross Island, near Scott Base and McMurdo Station. It constantly emits a large plume of steam and smoke. Occasionally it will belch rocks. You can watch a live video from inside the Mt. Erebus crater at the MEVO website.

The trip started with a briefing on the outing at the Field Safety Training Program offices. Then we selected helmets to fit us. We then took a Hagglunds tracked transport from McMurdo to the Scott Base sea ice transition. The Hagglunds is a Swedish dual-cab, medium class, over snow vehicle. Six persons sat in the rear cab and four sat in the front cab. A minimum thickness of 50 cm of hard ice is required before a Hagglunds can be driven across sea ice. They are powered by turbo diesel engines driving four rubber tracks through an automatic transmission and transfer case.

Once there, we were briefed on the proper operation of the snow mobiles (Bombardier Ski Doos). Interestingly enough, at McMurdo these are called "snow machines" not snow mobiles. I don't know the history or reason behind this change.

We rode tandem on the snow machines. There were many bumps and hills that occasionally caused the snow machine to become airborne. We took a route from the sea ice transition up the side of Mt. Erebus until we reached a large dome-like clearing. There was a Scott tent set up and inside it there with a football and soccer ball to play with. The wind was ferocious, probably at about 35 - 50 kts. The view was the most impressive part.
There was a giant panorama in 360 degrees that showed Mts. Erebus, Terra Nova and Terror;
the glacier that runs down to meet the sea ice;

the back side of Castle Rock; across the Ross Sea to Black Island and White Island;

the Royal Society Mountains;

and finally out to the liquid open water of the Ross Sea.

I could see the path the ice breaker Odin cut and the fuel tanker just behind it bring us 5.5 million gallons of fuel – enough to last the station for the next 12 months. These last photos are of the fuel tanker waiting just outside our ice pier and the pier itself.

It was a delightful afternoon outing that really gave one the sense of enormity and grandeur that is Antarctica.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Another great cartoon from our friend, Matt Davidson.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Royal Visit

His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco is visiting Antarctica as part of his interest in global ecology and climate. Americans may remember that he is the son of Prince Ranier and American actress Grace Kelly.

Wednesday, January 14, he visited the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and Thursday he visited McMurdo Station. He spoke with the assembled people in our dining hall at 7:15 pm. His comments were extemporaneous and unrehearsed. He spoke of his pride that Monaco is one of the signatories to the Antarctica Treaty, that the principality participates with Italy and France in other environmental issues and that his trip to both the Artic and Antarctic arose from his interest in the vital roles the poles play in global ecology and climate.

As you can see in this underexposed photo, he spoke to the crowd for about 15 minutes then he took a few questions from the audience. The questions were generic in quality as were the answers. He describes Monaco as a 2.2 square mile area with 33,000 residents, the majority of whom are not Monegasques (the name given to natives of Monaco....they are not Monicans). There are over 125 different nationalities living in Monaco where they receive over 4 million tourists annually. Prince Albert's grandfather was also a polar explorer, according to his remarks.

From McMurdo he travels to Antarctic bases of other countries: Concordia (France & Italy), Vostok (Russia), and Davis (Australia).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Arrived at the South Pole

Greetings from the South Pole. I flew here from McMurdo Station aboard a USAF LC-130 Hercules. The flight took approximately 3 hours. I sat in webbing alongside the interior. There were seven of us on the plane plus the crew made up of the 139th Air National Guard out of New York. 
The nominal altitude at the South Pole is 9300 feet. That is the measured altitude. However, due to less atmosphere and gravity at the poles, the barometric pressure is much lower here at any given altitude than would be seen in most of the world. The effect of this is that the effective altitude varies daily, but today was 10, 240 feet. I took Diamox before leaving McMurdo and will continue to take it for three more days to minimize symptoms arising from living at significant altitude
Sunday was a great day here for me. It turns out that over the past couple of days some tourists (yes, you read that right) skied into the South Pole. They were guided and outfitted by a company and paid no less than $50,000USD for the privilege. They stay in tents outside the station. They brought their own provisions. They spent money to get where I am and I am making money being here. Go figure. Anyway, since they were here a tour of the Ice Cube science experiment was arranged and I got to tag along. 
Ice Cube is an experiment where neutrino detectors are placed 2500 meters below the surface in an attempt to detect neutrinos passing through the Earth….from north to south. These neutrinos enter the Earth in the arctic or far northern regions, pass all the way through the Earth and are detected on their exit from the South Pole. It turns out that this is the best place on the planet to do this research because the Earth filters out all the other cosmic rays coming from that direction and leaves just the neutrinos to pass through. So, to get these detectors so far down under the ice, they use a hot water drill under extremely high pressure to melt a cylindrical column of ice 0.65 meters in diameter. It takes about 5000 gallons of fuel to generate the extremely hot water (88° C) for each hole. This summer they will drill about 19 holes. That will give them about 40 holes to their goal of about 80. Once the hole is drilled, they lower a specially made Digital Optical Module, or “DOM”, down into the hole.
 The water in the hole refreezes over a couple of days. The DOM is spherical and clear with electronics inside. It can withstand about 10,000 psi pressure. The DOM is attached to the surface by an umbilical cable. All the cables from all the DOMs are gathered together in a common computer room that receives the data in real time. Massive banks of computers process the data and it is uploaded via satellite to the US nightly. The principal investigator for this $270 million project is at the Univ. of Wisconsin. Of the $270 million, about $240 million is funded from the National Science Foundation with the rest coming from a variety of European countries.
The drilling work can only be done during the austral summer months, but data collection and transmission is performed 24/7/365. This is pure research. Detecting neutrinos by a multiple detector array can give the approximate location of the source of the particle. The scientific question is: will knowing the sources of these particles lead to discovery of previously unknown things in the universe? It’s wildly expensive, highly theoretical, uses vast amounts of fuel (2/3 of all the South Pole fuel supply goes for Ice Cube), but it is science and that is what we are here to support.
After returning from that amazing tour, I went with Wayne, the Physician Assistant here, on a tour of the bowels of the station. He took me to the ice tunnels (See page 3 of this link). These tunnels were carved out of the ice 15 meters (45 feet) below the surface. The tunnels are about 6 feet wide and 10 feet tall. They house the fresh water and sewage lines for the station as well as the electrical cables. As you might imagine, we melt ice to get fresh water (more on that later). The wells that are melted are called Rodriguez Wells, or just Rod Wells for short. Any one Rod Well will have a useful life of about 7 years. Then they have to begin a new Rod Well. The former Rod Well is now an immense cavern deep within the ice. It becomes a storage depot for sewage which freezes solid over time. These ice tunnels take the fresh water out of the current Rod Well and return sewage to a former well, all via insulated piping. Did I mention that in the ice tunnels it is a consistent minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit? You better believe it was as cold down there as I have ever experienced. My eyelashes, mustache, and beard were all frozen with ice crystals. The hairs at the end of my nose were frozen. After about a half hour touring the ice tunnels, which Wayne tells me few people get to visit, we went to the power plant and water plant.
The power plant uses one Caterpillar generator for routine power generation and a second one for peak loads. There are two more generators: one for backup and one undergoing maintenance. Nearly all the heat produced by these massive diesel generators is recovered. They use the heat to provide all the heat to the station, provide domestic hot water, and heat the water for the Rod Wells. With the heat recovery these generators are 70% efficient – a huge number in power generation.
From there it was on to the water plant right next door. The water from the Rod Well is exceptionally pure…in fact it is the purest water on the planet. That makes it not great for drinking. We humans like the taste of minerals in our water and the deionized water from the Rod Well would leach minerals from our bones and the water pipes. Also, the pipes like the pH to be slightly alkaline to reduce corrosion. So the water plant adds Calcium Chloride, Soda Ash, trace minerals and a tiny amount of chlorine for protection against germs. Water quality is analyzed daily, more sophisticated analysis is done weekly, and a lead and chloroform assay is done monthly. It always passes.
From there it was on to see the carpenter shop and heavy vehicle maintenance facility.
 In the latter they had a giant Caterpillar snow mover’s rear section dismantled. The transmission area was so large a person could get inside. Some of their wrenches were larger than my arm.
Our next stop was the geographic South Pole. It turns out that the South Pole’s ice cap moves over the land some 3000 meters below. Over the course of a year the ice moves about 10 meters relative to the actual pole. So, on January 1st of every year the geographic South Pole marker is moved. I got a photo of me at the geographic marker and know that since it was taken on January 4th, it is truly at the right place. Next stop was the ceremonial South Pole marker with the flags of the original signatories to the Antarctica treaty around it in a horseshoe configuration.
My first day was filled with science, exploration, discovery, and learning. Tomorrow I start work as the station doctor for approximately one week. The current station doctor, a delightful lady named Ella Derbyshire, is going to McMurdo for some rest and relaxation. Weather permitting, I’ll fly back to McMurdo on 12 January.