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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mass Casualty at the South Pole

No worries, it was just a drill.  No one was hurt.  One of several training exercises that we go through  to get ready for winter. 

Our five professional firefighters are on the ground on the skiway after the simulated airplane explosion.  This was a drill and there was no actual plane.  The plane and the fire were represented by cones.

It was our fourth drill of the season, this one staged on the skiway.  The scenario was that of an airplane calling the station 10 minutes prior to landing with a fire on board.  Our team of professional firefighter went to the skiway to extinguish the fire as the plane landed, but while working the fire the plane exploded and they all fell unconscious to the ground.  At that point our emergency response sprang into action.  The professional firefighters, five of them, are on station only for the summer.  Their primary tasks are to provide fire protection for air operation and to train the fire brigade for the winter.  We have four emergency response teams: 1) the first responders go to the scene of an emergency first, determine the nature of the emergency, and communicate with a command post on station what resources are needed; 2) the fire brigade is responsible for fire fighting; 3) the medical team is responsible for initial patient assessment and safe transportation to the clinic; and 4) the logistic team is responsible for supplying transportation and supplies to the other teams, such as spare batteries for the radios, air cylinders for the firefighters, fans for ventilation, additional fire extinguishers, etc.  While the first responders are on the scene, the other three teams move rapidly into their gear to get ready to move into action.  So, back to our scenario, the exercise was for the emergency response teams to go rescue the firefighters.  This was actually a fairly complex tasks, because we had to coordinate a team of about 40 people, provide transportation for them and for the victims to and from the scene, which was about a half mile from the station, rescue the victims from a fire without getting injured, assessing priorities so as to who gets treatment first, and transporting everyone back to the station.  All this in -15F (-26 C) temperatures.  We had been training on how to respond to emergencies on the ice, how to cope with icing of our face masks, how to drag unconscious people lying on the ice to a safe location. 
These drills are monitored by observers who take photos and then debrief us to point out areas for improvement.  The photos shown here were taken by the observers.
Most everything went well.  We were on the scene to assist the first victim within 14 minutes after the alarm and everyone was taken back to the station within 24 minutes.  This is a very fast response, considering our level of training and the environmental conditions at the South Pole.  Of course, it was a sunny and warm day in the middle of summer.  Things would be a lot harder in the darkness and cold of winter.

Members of the fire brigade, in full bunker gear and breathing air from a tank, are dragging the victims out of the fire zone, while the logistic team provided transportation on snowmobile, sleds, and Pisten Bullys.

The first victim, properly immobilized on a stretcher, arrives in the clinic, where our doctor administers the appropriate care.
In this photo, taken in the hall of the station about a month ago during a simulated fire in one of the lounges, I am walking out of the fire scene in full bunker gear, after extinguishing the fire, to have my air bottle replaced by the logistics team and get ready to go back into the scene.  In this simulation we also had two unconscious victims to drag out of the lounge and deliver to the medical team.  This simulation was quite realistic, as the entire lounge was smoked so that it was impossible to see, and we had to crawl on the floor to search for the victims.  Working in full bunker gear is very tiring.  Not only does it get very warm inside all the insulating layers of fireproof clothing; the gear is also quite heavy (I weighted mine at 48 pounds, or 22 kg.).  Add to that any additional equipment that, depending on the circumstances, we have to hand carry (a fire extinguisher, a crowbar, etc), and it becomes quite a workout.  We have had numerous false alarms already and we hope that all of what we will have to deal with will be drills and false alarms.  All in all these are very good skills to have and I am happy to be given the opportunity to learn something new and practical.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Race Around the World

As my friend Pablo put it, the Race Around the World is the South Pole version of the San Francisco Bay to Breakers: any means of transportation are permitted, costumes are allowed, and arrangements can be made even for those who would rather watch the race from a couch.  This year the Race Around the World was a 2.1-mile loop around the station and around the geographic South Pole.  Two tracks were groomed: an inside track for the runners, walkers, and skiers, and an outside track for the vehicles.  The winner of the race gets a free ride to McMurdo to compete in the Antarctic marathon.  The field is surprisingly competitive, as the South Pole attracts people of a great level of fitness and highly accomplished in all kinds of sports.  This year we had on station Everest summitteers, world record holder in mountain running, astronauts, snowboard champions, and several Alaska mountain guides.  Out of a station population of about 250 more than half chose to run or walk or ski the course. 
Don, the fire Captain,  on the left in this photo, appropriately dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, sounded the horn promptly at 10 AM.

The skiers lined up behind the runners and before the walkers.

Some of the Ice Cube workers rode in a chariot that they had built last year for this purpose ...

... while others watched the course from a moving couch.

If you are a snowboard champion, a snowmobile can provide the thrill of a downhill slalom.

Back to the official race, the first turn in the course was at the Cosmic Ray Detector platform.

Just before the halfway point we come to Spool Henge.  This is what is left of gigantic spools of cables laid into the ice over the years to send data from scientific experiments in the ice back to the science buildings.  The Ice Cube project alone used more than 100 miles of cables.  Now Spool Henge has become a South Pole landmark, but at some point all of this will need to be taken out of the continent.

Rickey won the race by a large margin.  He is an avid mountain runner and holds some of the most unique world records: among them, he has the world's fastest time climbing to the top of the Empire State Building in New York.  He is also the record holder in the run from Yosemite Valley up to the top of Half Dome and back (he can do it in some 2 hrs and a few minutes, if you can believe it).

This is me approaching the finish line in fifth place.  Racing at 9,300 ft of elevation takes your breath away.

And finally some of the costumes: here is Pablo with Elissa.

I did not have a costume, but I put on the joker hat that I brought back from Kathmandu several years ago to take this photo with Joselyn, before heading back to the station for brunch.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas day at South Pole

First of all, Happy Holidays to all from 90 South. 

We received a most desired gift for Christmas from the meteorologists: after a couple of weeks of 15-knot winds, we had a perfect, windless, South Pole summer day, which felt warm and invited us outside.  Timing couldn't have been better, because Christmas day is when the entire station goes outside to run the race around the world.  Where else on the planet could you go out for a morning jog and end up crossing all of the meridians?  The temperature had dropped just a bit, down to -13 F (-25 C).

So, we started off the day with the Race Around the World at 10 AM.  I had a good run and came in fifth out of a fairly competitive group of people (more on this later).  After the race, a shower, and a quick brunch, I joined Chris and two others on a tour of the 10-meter telescope.  Chris has been my neighbor in the Science building for the last two months.  He has now completed his work overhauling the azimuth bearing of the telescope, and will be going home on Tuesday, so this was one of our last chances to get a tour from an insider.  After the tour, we spent quite a bit of time walking around the science buildings, basking in the Antarctic summer sun, and enjoying the polar views, before heading back to the station for dinner.  Dinner was prefaced with fine hors-d'oeuvres in the hallway, followed by a sit-down meal that included lobster (I had to come all the way to the South Pole to taste my first lobster!), accompanied by a choice of six different wines from Australia and California's Napa Valley, and closed with a choice of four different desserts (I had three of them).
Before going to sleep, tired after a long day full of activities, I jumped on the bicycle with my MP3 player, and went out riding on the ice for an hour trying to burn off some of the extra calories and  enjoying the last little bit of one of the best Christmases I ever had.

The Southernmost Christmas tree is made of recyclable materials and is decorated with ornaments taken from our daily lives here at Pole.  In the background are ice blocks available for carving by those of us with an artistic sense.  The sculptures will be judged on Jan 9.

The start of the Race Around the World: a 2-mile loop around the station and around the geographical South Pole is a Christmas tradition.

A view of the 10-meter telescope from the rooftop, during the tour that Chris gave us in the afternoon.

After visiting the telescope, a group of 4 of us went on a walk to the Ice Cube Laboratory to enjoy the warm December sun.

Christmas dinner main course at the South Pole: Beef tenderloin Wellington with a Cabernet demi glace, grilled Maine lobster tail with lemon parsley butter, portobello and goat cheese Wellington, Basil mashed potatoes, haricot verts with toasted hazelnut shallot butter, and challah bread.

Christmas dinners are a group effort.  Our kitchen staff puts in most of the work, with most everyone else contributing some of our free time.  I helped in the dish pit for one hour, washing dishes after the second serving of the day, with three other happy volunteers.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

AGO: A flight over Antarctica

I was eating lunch with the seismologists on Saturday when Comms called me on the radio: "You have 20 minutes to get to the plane".  We had been on weather delay for the last 48 hrs, trying to get to the AGO 1 field camp to pull Bob, Andy, and Dustin from the site that they had gone out to service six days before.  It had been stormy and windy at Pole, but right after noon the Twin Otter pilots decided that we had a narrow window of opportunity to attempt the 6 hrs roundtrip flight, before conditions would worsen at AGO 1.  AGO stands for Automatic Geophysics Observatory.  There are 5 stations scattered around the continent.  They are autonomous, powered by solar and wind energy, with battery backups.  They transmit data back to the US via satellite phone.  Among other things, they measure magnetism, ionospheric phenomena, and they image the sky in the winter: a small scale version of what I do at Pole, so I had been invited by Bob to visit the site and help them pull out.  AGO 1 is 440 miles from the South Pole and it takes about 2.5 hrs to reach on a Twin Otter.  It was the trip of a lifetime!  I will let the pictures tell the story.

The Twin Otter parked at Pole before taking off to AGO 1 in windy and overcast conditions.  The Twin Otter is operated by Kenn Borek Air, a Canadian company based in Calgary that specializes in flight operations to remote locations.

Plenty of leg room in the cabin.  It was just the pilots and me on the way out.  No cargo.

Randy and Travis, our pilots, specialize on ice flights.  In the austral summer they fly in Antarctica.  At the end of January it will take them two weeks to fly the Twin Otter back to Calgary, where they will rest for a short period before starting the Arctic season.  They are specially trained to land on ice.  The trickiest part in Antarctica is to land on the sastrugi without compromising the landing gear; in the Arctic it is to judge the thickness of the ice floes and make sure they can support the weight of the plane.  Luckily we have solid ice here in Antarctica to land on.

Despite the storm at the South Pole, it was a smooth flight out to AGO 1, with tail wind.

There were no geographic features for the entire flight: not a mountain, not a crevasse.  Just ice, with regular undulations glimmering in the low angle antarctic light, and sastrugi.  We flew most of the time about 2,000 feet above the surface of the ice.  The wind creates large features on the ice that from a distance look just the same as the sastrugi look from the ground, making it impossible to judge the elevation of the plane without an altimeter. 

This is the AGO 1 station: 8" x 24", powered by a 1 kW wind turbine and 4 solar panels.  The closest human presence is 440 miles away, at the South Pole.  This building contains the control electronics for the scientific equipment scattered around the ice, two bunk beds, and a small stove.  Every few years the station is raised along the 4 posts at the corners to prevent it from sinking under the accumulating ice.

A view of the AGO 1 from a distance shows, right to left, the scientific instruments marked with flags, the control station with the windmill, a snowmobile, and a food cache.  The food stays frozen and is good for 10 years before it gets replaced.  There is also a fuel cache not seen in the picture. 

While we were closing the station, gathering the equipment, and loading the cargo, the pilots refueled the plane.

We only spent 1 hour on the ground.  It was not cold (probably around 0 F, or -18 C), but very windy (at least 20 mph).

Before taking off I stopped for a minute to look out into the white infinity and imagine what Amundsen and Scott must have experienced 99 years ago.  Imagine being here, in the middle of nowhere, with just skis and sleds, no satellite phone, and no GPS!

Bob (left) and Dustin (right) on the ride back.  Bob is the chief engineer of the AGO program.  He left a scientific career at Bell Labs several years ago to join the Antarctic Research Program.  He had my job 5 years ago.  Now he works for the New Jerswy Institute of Technology, where he designs and builds the equipment that is deployed to the AGO stations.  In the austral summer he spends 3 months in Antarctica bringing new science and upgrades.  Dustin is the mountaineer in the group.  In real life he is a mountain guide on Mt. McKinley in Alaska.  His job is to ensure the safety of the group in the harsh Antarctic environment.  He is also the expedition cook. 

Riding in the back of the plane was Andy.  Andy is the most eclectic engineer I ever met.  He can fix just about anything electrical or mechanical, and he can build beautifully working equipment out of scrap (an essential skill in Antarctica, where the closest store is thousands of miles away).  He is also the person who fixed the bicycle at the South Pole station (I owe him a lot just for that).

Not much leg room left after we loaded all the cargo ... but still beats a first class seat!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Food from the sky

We had an event of biblical proportions at the South Pole on Thursday.  Food came down from the skies.  16,000 lbs of if (~7,200 kg).  It was an air drop coordinated with the National Air Guard, part of our winterover training, in case we need emergency supplies during the 9 months of winter isolation.  A winter air drop is a rare emergency, and we hope that we will not need one this year, but better safe than sorry. 

16,000 lbs of food were delivered to us by air drop in a training exercise on Thursday.  The drop zone was located approximately 2 miles away from the station.

The air drop team is made up of seven of us winterovers.  We started preparing a couple of weeks ago studying and reviewing the procedure.  Then, last Saturday, we met with the C17 pilots and got some more details (what kind of chutes they use, how fast they drop, how precise they are, how they find the target, how they compensate for atmospheric conditions, altitude of the drop, bearings, how to fold the parachutes, etc).   Most importantly, we learned how to communicate with each other, when they are up in the air and we stand on the ground.  The worst thing that could happen is if one of the packages were to hit the station.  After the meeting with the pilots we went out to practice setting burn barrels on fire.  Burn barrels are positioned in very specific locations on the ice to visually designate the drop zone in the darkness of winter.  Of course, no need for them in the summer, but we still need to practice and make sure that we can set them up correctly.  It turns out that lighting a fire in -20 F (-29 C) is not an easy task.  It is even more difficult in the -90 F (-70 C) of winter, as the jet fuel does not vaporize enough to sustain a flame at that temperature.  So, we learned a few tricks.
The pilots also gave us the GPS coordinates of the air drop zone so, after the burn barrel exercise we drove two Pisten Bullys to the ice to located and stake the corners of the drop zone.  The following day our surveyors went to verify that we had put the stakes in the correct locations.  We were within 10~25 feet of our targets, which is well within our tolerances.
Then on Thursday, a few hours prior to the drop, we reviewed once more our safety procedures, and drove to our staging location close to the drop zone.  Everything went well.  In the packages, besides flours and cereal, the pilots sent us some surprise gifts (a stuffed penguin, some special cookies, and a few bottles of Scotch).

Setting up the burn barrels on fire: Christy, Ben, Kevin, Grace, and Marcopolie.

Marcopolie locating one of the corners of the drop zone with a handheld GPS, and Kevin ready to stake the location.  The station is barely visible on the horizon.

The C17 approaching the drop zone on Thursday, Dec 16.

The first packages leaving the plane.

The chutes opening up

The packages in free fall.  Each box is 48" x 48" x 48", or approximately 1 cubic meter, and weighs 1,000 lbs.

The packages hitting the ground.

After the plane left we moved into the drop zone to recover the parachutes.  It is important to recover them right away, because drifting snow could make the recovery much more difficult later on.  We worked in 20 mph winds and -20 F (-29 C) to first detach the parachute from the box.

Then we tied the ropes in a special knot called a daisy chain, we rolled the chutes, and carried them back to the station on a sled.  Here Christy and Grace in action.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bicycling at the South Pole?

Yes, it is possible, it has been done, and it is great fun.  In fact, more than fun, it is exhilarating, addictive, and contagious.
I wanted to make sure that I could ride a bicycle at the South Pole, so I made several inquiries before leaving home and was told that there should be a bicycle somewhere on station.  When I arrived, I found the bicycle, but I also found that it was very much in need of parts and repair ... not the kind of spare parts I had taken with me.  Luckily, a couple of weeks later Andy showed up.  He had seen the bike last year and had shipped himself a box full of parts, so we were able to get the bike in riding conditions again (Thanks, Andy!!!).  We had been waiting for a good day to test it out on the ice.  The perfect day came on Dec 14, which was also the 99th anniversary of Amundsen arriving at the Pole.  Unfortunately Andy was not with us, as he had to go to a field camp 450 miles away to work on some geomagnetic instrumentation, but six of us got together and got out.  The temperature had warmed up to -16 F (-27 C).  We were stunned and amazed how well the bike rode, and how much fun it was.  So enthusiastic we were, that we are now planning the first ever outdoor triathlon at the South Pole (biking, running, and skiing).  I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Marcopolie at the Geographic South Pole ... on two wheels

With Pablo.  Pablo is our very helpful help desk administrator.  In real life he is a Research Scientist at Google.  He lives in Palo Alto, only a few blocks from where I used to live.  We will try to get this photo published in the San Jose Mercury News.

With Kevin, our Network Administrator, Mark, the station doctor, and Katherine, who works in materials, we took this photo holding the book "K2" by Ed Viestours, one of the most acclaimed American mountaineers.  We all read the book here at the Pole, and we want to send this photo to the author and see what kind of response we get.

Connie, our Physician Assistant, rode all the way from the Geographic South Pole to the Ceremonial South Pole!!!

  Good bye for now, I am going for a ride.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Running and skiing trails

My friend Jason asked me about the whereabouts of my running and skiing paths and I promised him to answer with a blog, so here it is.  The pilots of a NASA plane that flew over the station last month took a picture from the sky and were so kind as to email it to us.  I overlayed my running and skiing paths on this photo to produce a map of our surroundings.
Aerial photo of the station taken from 30,000 ft, with my running and skiing paths shown overlayed.  The run path follows the skiway, which can be seen as a faint line.

A photo taken at the top of the ski loop.  The halo around the sun is real and is a diffraction pattern produced by ice crystals in the air.  Different shapes of crystals produce different types of patterns.  This photo was taken during one of our ski club outings, on Dec 1, with Zoe on the left, and me on the right.