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Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Indian Traverse

One of the perks of coming to South Pole for me was that for 12 months I would not see a single car ... not so!
A couple of days ago three Toyotas showed up, having driven more than 1,250 miles from the edge of the continent in a mere week and a half.  They came with the Indian Traverse, a scientific expedition organized by the Indian Station in Antarctica to take meteorological data from the continent.
The cars are modified Toyotas, built by ArcticTrucks, a company in Iceland.  They run on jet fuel, and they each cost about $150k.  They can drive at speeds of up to 25 mph on the ice.  Fuel efficiency?  Just 4 mpg!  They are equipped with a Ground Probing Radar (GPR), a system that senses the presence of crevasses.

The Indian Traverse on final approach to the South Pole in their Toyotas - Foto courtesy AB

Initially I was not impressed by people driving cars to the South Pole, when less than 100 years ago the true heroes of Antarctica risked their lives skiing and pulling sleds here, and I had no interest in going out to see the cars.  But then yesterday I bumped into one of the members of the expedition and had lunch with him: a very nice mechanic from India who has spent the last 13 months in Antarctica at the Indian station.  He told me about the cars, about the axle that broke during the traverse and that he had to repair in the field.  I then met one of the Icelandic Engineers who designed the car, and I started considering that, after all, I had it a lot easier, making the trip from the coast in a much more comfortable airplane and in just 3 hours.  I gained respect for the pioneering efforts of this traverse, and I went out to take some photos of the cars before they left on their 1250- mile trip back to the coast.  Here they are.  Good luck, Indian Traverse!

The ArcticTruck modified Toyota at the South Pole.

At the main entrance of the South Pole Station, ready to leave on the journey back to the coast.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hotel South Pole (3) - the dining room

I like a restaurant with a view.  One of my favorites is the Cliff House in San Francisco, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  Another one is the Mountain House Restaurant, nestled in the redwood forest on the ridge between the Bay Area and the Ocean.  Well, I have not been disappointed here at the South Pole Station.  The dining room -we call it the galley- has lots of windows, all of them featuring one of the most surreal, unobstructed, and unique views that one could imagine, including the Geographic South Pole and some of our scientific stations.  Getting a window seat is never a problem.

The view from the galley

The galley can sit approximately 100 people at a time.  The large LCD screens hanging from the ceiling constantly display weather conditions, flight arrivals, and satellite connectivity.  The galley is also where we gather for the Sunday night science lectures - last Sunday we learnt about cosmic microwave radiation, the big bang, and the origin of the universe from John Carlstrom, from the Fermi Institute of the University of Chicago, the father of the 10-mt South Pole Telescope,

It is nice for a restaurant to have a view, but it is so much better if the food is good, too.  And the food here is absolutely excellent, starting from the ingredients, to the preparation, to the variety of the selections, and to the friendliness of the kitchen staff.  We have several cooks, and even a baker who makes specialty breads, pastries, and desserts.  The dining assistants and cooks know us by name, they always have a smile on, and know our favorite dishes (tofu scrambles with fresh vegetables for me in the morning, instead of eggs, liquorice tea in the evening).  They do not make me miss home!

A couple of days ago was mexican dinner night.  Notice the fresh tomales, rice, beans, corns, fresh vegetables all the way to the right, and fruit and chocolate dessert on the top.

We have a wide selection of drinks, too: milk, coffee, hot water with  lots of different teas, and fruit juices.  At the far right is the ice cream.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hotel South Pole (2) - the gym

Every respectable hotel has to have some exercise facilities.  Here at the South Pole Station we have both indoor and outdoor ones.  I will take you through my typical morning routine and show you some of them. On a typical day I get up around 5:30 AM, put on my indoor exercise clothes and head out straight into the gym.  I start with a 5-minute warm up on the stationary bicycle and some stretching.  Then I put on my layers of fleece, balaclava, neck gaiter, heavy socks, two pairs of gloves, goggles, and I am ready for my outside run.  I have tried several running paths, but by far the nicest is the skiway, because it is well groomed and therefore the easiest to run on. 

The gym has stationary bicycles, treadmills, stairmasters, an elliptical machine, a rowing machine, and, not pictured, weight lifting equipment.

To access the skiway I need to check in with "comms" first.  Comms, short for communications, is our operations center.  It is composed of four people who take turns in the control tower and manage the communications with the airplanes and within the station.  In general, no planes move in the early morning, so I can use the skiway until at least 7 AM.  I need to carry a radio with me on my runs, so comms can contact me in case of any changes.  Likewise I need to call and let them know when I get off the skiway.  I love the people in comms: they are super nice, and they always have a little joke for me when I come back from my run with frost all over my clothes.

Sundays are fairly quiet days in comms (today we only had one scheduled twin otter flight), so Sherry let me sit at the control post for this photo.

Running to the end of the skiway and back is only 5 miles, but it takes me close to one hour.  I am not sure what slows me down so much, whether it is the extra weight of the clothes and radio, or the altitude, or the sligthly slippery surface of the ice, or the breathing through the mesh in the balaclava to pre-warm the air that I breathe.  After the run I go back to the gym for a 15 minute warm down on the stationary bicycle and some more stretching, before cleaning up and heading to breakfast.
I will show our dining room (we call it the galley) in a future blog.

Here is a partial view of the skiway from comms.  The two small buildings on the ice are what we call the passenger terminal.  My run goes all the way to the left of this photo and out of the field of view.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hotel South Pole (1) - my room

Comparing the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to a hotel is a diminutive.  The living quarter are better than a 5-star hotel.  We have private rooms, a large cafeteria, fully featured gym, sauna, basketball court, lounges, game rooms ... all complemented with views of the Antarctic continent.  When I stop and think that all this is at the South Pole, where life was not meant to be, then I realize how unbelievable this all is and what a privilege it is to be here just for a day, let alone a full year.
Today I will write the first of a series of blogs to take you inside the station, and I will start with my own room.  The room itself is small (6' 9" x 9' 8" = 2 m x 3 m), but has everything I need, and more.  The bed is raised, leaving plenty of space underneath for a chest of drawers and extra room for storage.  I have a desk with a phone and an internet connection, plenty of power outlets, a desk lamp in addition to the reading lamp on top of the bed, room to store my skis, a nice carpet, and, not seen in the photo, a dresser to hang my clothes.  Note on the window the radio, plugged into its charger - the radio is a necessity on station, as it alerts us of emergencies, and it allows us to quickly find each other, as we spend more time working around than sitting in the office.  The room also has its own independent thermostat.
The bathrooms and showers are shared among the people living in each wing (approximately 30 people).  We take turns to clean them and we keep them spotless.

My room at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.

View from my room.
The smoking pipe on the right is from our power plant; the cardboard boxes sitting on the ice hold our recyclables (we have a dozen categories of recyclable materials, and we recycle upward of 70% of our waste)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Field work at the South Pole

Several people have been asking for a blog and photos about the living quarters in the station.  So I promise to make that the subject of my next blog, but today I would like to take you outside the station to show you some of the work that I do on the ice.  As the person responsible for the Space Weather Laboratory at the South Pole, I operate and maintain a number of instruments scattered around the station, most of them within a radius of 2 miles from the station.  Some of the instruments are sitting on the ice, some are on the roof of buildings, some are buried under the ice.  Most of them can be monitored remotely from inside the station, but all of them require the periodic or occasional visit.  Here are some of them in photos.

This is the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO).  I am monitoring two experiments here and I need to walk here from the station every day, no matter what the weather is like.  It is a 15-minute walk.  Most of the science in this building is done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  It is here that data about ozone depletion, carbon dioxide concentration, and pollution are collected.  The building is located upwind from the station and samples the purest air that the world has to offer.

Here I am standing with Bob in front of an antenna that captures electromagnetic waves propagating through the ionosphere.  Some of these waves originate in space (such as from solar winds), other originate from the earth itself (such as from lightning).  These antennas are located about 1 mile from the station and I only have to visit them occasionally.

This is a combination solar panel and wind turbine being tested as a remotely operated, wireless, and self-powered station for extreme weather conditions.  It could be used to record and transmit seismic, environmental, or positional data.  Upon successful testing a large number of these could be deployed across the continent.  I need to inspect and monitor it every day.  It is located about one quarter of a mile from the main station.

Here I am standing on a platform about 15 feet above the ice, which supports a cosmic ray detector.  I am still trying to figure out what cosmic rays are, but, in the meantime, today I had to go out there to replace a heater that broke during the winter.  The temperature today was -45 F (-42 C), but with no wind I stayed warm for the entire time (about 1 hr) that it took two of us to do the job.  This apparatus is located not too far from the wind turbine above and, if all goes well, I should not have to go there, unless something breaks.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The South Pole Station

When I studied geography in high school the short chapter on Antarctica had only one photograph: it was a photo of the Dome.  It felt strange to come here and not see it.  It was taken apart and flown out last summer, leaving no trace behind.  The problem with the Dome is that it was getting buried under the snow that accumulates here, about 8" every year.

This photo of the old South Pole Station from Wikipedia shows the Dome buried by snow accumulation (the entrance was originally at the surface of the ice).

Replacing the Dome, we now have what we call the Elevated Station.  A breakthrough architectural concept and an engineering marvel.  It is built on stilts and is elevated from the ground.  Being elevated, when the wind blows, the snow does not catch into the sides of the building and does not form walls of snowdrift; being built on stilts, it can be raised every few years to remain afloat on top of the ice as the snow accumulates.

The Elevated Station seen from the Skiway

The station seen from the Geographic South Pole (the South Pole is located approximately where the flag is)

My room (circled in red).  This photo shows how the station is not built on the ice, but on stilts.

As seen in these photos, the weather has improved dramatically in the last few days.  Yesterday the wind was 8 mph and today there was no wind at all.  The skies have been deep blue.  Without the wind I have been venturing outside for my morning runs, with one additional layer of fleece on top of what I was wearing in McMurdo.  This morning I ran 4 miles on the skiway.  Despite the -42F (-41C) temperature I felt nice and warm the entire way.  It is time to go check out the skis now.  Some people already started going out yesterday.  As soon as I post this blog I am going to look for the stash of skis and boots somewhere here on station and hope to find some that fit me.  The doctor on station is an avid cross-country skier, and I hope to be able to log a few miles with him while the weather holds.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Good Bye, Ethan

The baton was passed yesterday, as Ethan left the station and I officially took over the reins of the Space Weather Laboratory at the South Pole.  I spent the last 10 days working in the lab and in the field with Ethan and learning the ropes during what we call "turnover".  I have learned how to shovel 3 feet of snow and ice to access a vault containing delicate instruments, how to crawl in, and how to calibrate instruments at -40 F; I learned what to do in case of a power outage (not an uncommon event here at South Pole); how to detect cosmic rays; how to receive radio waves and turn them into images of the sky; and how to monitor and troubleshoot all kinds of instrumentation.  Ethan has also taught me the way around the staion, the dos and dont's.  I couldn't have made it this far this quick without him.  Thank you, Ethan!

Ethan (left) passing me the keys to the Space Weather Lab for the next 12 months, on the South Pole skiway.

Good bye, Ethan, and good luck on your next adventure!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Storm at the South Pole

I wanted my first pictures from the South Pole to show dark blue skies, like we often see in the official photographs, but the weather has not cooperated.  So, with no hope of a clearing for a couple more days, we decided to bundle up and brave the elements for a group photo with the techs who have spent the last winter here at the pole, before they leave the ice and we, new techs, take over. 

The South Pole Science Support group at the geographic South Pole (marked by the pole on the left side of the picture).  From left to right: Nick, incoming Cryo Tech, holding an empty liquid nitrogen dewar; Ethan, outgoing Space Weather Tech; Al, South Pole Science Manager, here for the summer months only; Flint, outgoing Cryo Tech, and Marcopolie (me), incoming Space Weather Tech.  The station is the black building in the background.

I had so much fun out in the storm that I went back with Owen (on the right in this picture) and Dan (taking the photo) for some more.  20 knots of wind make the flag show really well in this photo, but holding the sign straight takes all our effort.  The strom has also brought higher temperatures.  When we took this photo the temperature was a balmy -15 F (-26 C).

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Transantarctic Mountains

I have been at the South Pole station for three days.  I am very well situated, with a private room in the main station, with a window that looks out on the white expanse of ice all the way to the horizon as far as the eye can see.  The station is modern and spotless, an engineering marvel in a place where hunans were not meant to live.  I will have a lot to share through this blog about life in the station, the science, and what my role is here, but, before I do so, I wanted to share some of the photos that I took flying over the continent between McMurdo and the Pole.

For the first 45 minutes after leaving McMurdo, we flew over the Ross Ice Shelf, with the mountains at the edge of the continent visible in the distance.

Here we are at the end of the Ice Shelf, where the continent begins.  Note the glaciers flowing into the ice shelf at the far left.

The tops of some low elevation mountains peak through the thick ice.

About 1 hour into the flight we come into view of the Transantarctic mountains.  Note how the ice smooths the topogrphy and only the tops of the mountains emerge.

Glaciers flowing.

The ice is not exactly smooth, but shows a variety of different textures and undulations.

At last, about 2 hours into the flight, we leave the Transantarctic mountains as we fly over the 2-mile thick ice of the plateau.  The last three mountains seem to just make it through the top of the ice in this photo.  From now on the terrain will be flat all the way to the South Pole.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

From McMurdo to the South Pole

The stars finally aligned on November 2nd as we made the 900-mile, 3-hr trip to the South Pole on the first Hercules landing of the season.  The day started as many of the last several days, with an 8 AM scheduled take off, which would be delayed all day long because of weather conditions.  The wind, the temperature, and the visibility, all must be within prescribed limits both at the South Pole and at McMurdo for a successful flight.  While waiting for the weather to improve on the sea ice runway we met the Italian expedition.  They arrived on a C17 carrying along two helicopters.  They would unload the helicopters and fly them to their base 300 miles away.  We exchanged stories and took photos.  Our window of opportunity opened up at 4:30 PM, when we took off on what must be the most spectacular flight in the world. 

We woke up on Nov 2nd to wind gusts of 40 knots, which stripped the surrounding mountains of the snow that had fallen the previous week, and engulfed us in clouds of drifting ice crystals.

Riccardo is my counterpart in the Italian expedition to the Mario Zucchelli base.  The Italians are renowned in McMurdo for their stylish outfits.

Boarding the ski-equipped LC-130 that will take us this time to the South Pole.

Inside the LC-130.

The cockpit.

The pilots' view.

Flying over the Transantarctic Mountains.

Landing at the South Pole.

Walking from the runway to the South Pole Station under sunny skies and -47 F (-44 C) temperature.