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.