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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

South Pole Meteorology

A significant percentage of the station personnel is dedicated to meteorology: 4 people in the summer and 2 in the winter.  That is about 3~4% of the population.  Now think about how many meteorologists you know back home and you will realize that meteorology at the South Pole is a big and important deal.  It is important because we are one of the few stations on the continent able to provide measurements year-round; it is a big deal because we maintain a skiway in the summer and need to provide accurate weather observations for air operation.   Short-term local weather forecasting is part of the job as well, as is the launch of balloons, twice a day. 
In addition to the meteorologists, we have two full-time employees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  They do atmospheric measurements, including cloud coverage, air quality, analysis of particulates, carbon dioxide, concentration of ozone and ozone-depleting CFC gases, UV radiation, solar irradiance, albedo, and other parameters. 

Many measurements, such as temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed, etc, are automated but, much to my surprise, several critical measurements are still performed by humans and are fairly subjective and qualitative.  Every hour during the summer the meteorologist on shift climbs on the roof, looks over the horizon, and checks visibility, horizon definition, and surface definition.  Visibility is defined by the ability of the meteorologist to discern black boards positioned at half mile intervals from each other in different directions on the ice.  Horizon and surface definition are reported as good, fair, poor, or nil.  There are standardized criteria to follow, but I am sure there still is some subjectivity in the observations - surprising in the age of computers and image processing.  All of these observations are critical, as they are reported to aircrafts and form the basis for decisions on whether it is safe to land.  I went on the roof with Rolf on Feb 3 to see how well matched my eyes were to his, and discovered that I can use some eye calibration.

Phil, another one of our summer meteorologists, prepares a balloon launch at our Balloon Inflation Facility (BIF) on Feb 4.  The BIF is adjacent to the cryogenic facility, so the balloons can be inflated with the Helium that evaporates from the storage dewars, which would otherwise be wasted.

Phil checking the proper inflation of the balloon by measuring its lift force.  The balloon must provide enough upwards force to lift the weight of the measurement instruments attached to it.

Lindsay, who was visiting the science projects at the South Pole for just a few days, is given the privilege of releasing the balloon to the skies.

The balloon climbs at a rate of ascent of about 1,000 ft per minute, or about 12 mph.  It expands as it climbs up to 100,000 ft of elevation, until it bursts and falls back down to earth. 

As soon as the balloon is released, Phil comes back into the BIF and checks in real time the data transmitted by the on-board instruments to make sure that the launch is successful.  The data is recorded and then transmitted to meteorological centers around the world, where it becomes an input to complex weather forecasting models.

Here Christy, one of the two NOAA scientists, is about to release the NOAA balloon on Feb 2.  This is a much bigger balloon than the one launched by the meteorologists, because it carries a much heavier payload, consisting of instruments used to measure ozone concentrations.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The last plane

The winter season at the South Pole station starts the day the last Hercules C-130 leaves the station, taking on board the last of the summer support personnel, and leaving the station isolated until the next summer crew shows up towards the end of October.  This year this happened on February 15.  The temperature had been dropping in the previous days down to -40 F (-40 C), quickly approaching the -59 F (-50.5 C) limit at which the Hercs can no longer land. 
The day of the last plane is an important date, full of anticipations and emotions.  On the one hand we are sad to see our summer friends leave; on the other we are eager to move on with the new rhythm and the perks afforded by the smaller population. 
One of the nicest perks is that we have more room.  The station is built to house 150 people, so there is plenty of space now for the 49 of us, 35 men and 14 women.  The wing were I was sleeping before is being closed down to save energy and it is being turned into our cold storage (for food, etc).  So, I moved into a new wing, with an unobstructed view over the plateau.  My winter room is a formidable 12 sq ft (1 square meter) larger than the summer room, bringing my personal space up to 72 sq ft, or 7 square meters.  It does not look like much, but the extra room allows me to fit a 6 ft desk, so now I can comfortably work on my computer from my room.
Another perk is that we have more free time, at least for us in science.  The summer has been a very busy period, as many scientists came from the mainland to bring new equipment and start new science projects.  I had about a dozen professors, researchers, and graduate students to assist and to learn from, every one staying about one week or so, with just a few days between the departure of one group and the arrival of the next.  I also had to perform a number of tasks in the summer, primarily calibrations and maintenance, which cannot be done in the winter, when the cold temperatures make access to some of the equipment on the ice very difficult or impossible.  We were also busy receiving, inspecting, and sorting a large amount of new laboratory supplies for the winter, from new power supplies, oscilloscopes, computer spare parts and consumables, to gloves, headlights, helmets, batteries, nuts and bolts and tool sets, to paper clips, tapes, adhesives, chemicals, and the list goes on and on.  In addition, as I have described in earlier blogs, we had numerous training sessions to attend with the fire brigade, the air drop, the emergency power plant operation, etc, all to be as prepared as we could for the winter in isolation.
Now things are slowly getting less busy, as we are primarily practicing the skills that we learnt and operating the science equipment and the station.  We still have a number of chores to do, such as closing the summer quarters, preparing our emergency gear (ready to use in case we lose the station to some calamity), moving stuff around, but that should be accomplished within the next two weeks.  Due to our limited staff, we also take turns to work in the kitchen once a month.  One new skill for winter that I recently learnt is flight following, so I occasionally get to work in the control tower.  Although no planes land at the South Pole, we still follow flights to and from Antarctica to provide emergency radio communications to airplanes.  I learnt how to relay information from air traffic control to an airplane and vice-versa, how to decipher and read a weather report, how to interpret the location of an aircraft, all in the proper lingo.
With the approaching sunset, due in just 32 days, the sun is decidedly lower on the horizon and less warm.  The temperatures started to drop down to -45 C (-49.9 F was our lowest a few days ago), with windchills down into the -70s F.  However there has been a warming trend that started yesterday, as moist air has arrived and, condensing into fog, has raised the temperature into the -30 C (-22 F).  Fog can form at temperatures down to -40 C, which is the typical limit for supercooled water.  This means that, although water freezes at 0 C, it can remain in liquid form down to -40 C, if left undisturbed.  When this fog hits a surface, however, it is no longer undisturbed, and solidifies instantaneously into frost.  So, yesterday we had a very unique and rare phenomenon, where the ground and all the surfaces were covered by an extra layer of ice crystals.  Skiing in the dense fog was a treat, even though I had to bring along the GPS, in addition to the radio, to make sure I could find my way back to the station, which became invisible less than one mile away (I didn't have to use either).  Today, Feb 18, it is a fine day, overcast, but with unrestricted visibility, low winds, and temperatures still up in the -28 C (-18 F), so I plan on going on one more bike ride (probably my last one, as the grease in the drive train freezes at lower temperatures, and I have found it impossible to ride in temperatures below -35 C (-30 F).
As winter approaches, there are many uncertainties and expectations.  What will the sunset be like?  How long will the twilight last before it gets pitch black?  How bright will the full moon and auroras be?  Will we really have beautiful auroras this winter, as we are approaching a solar maximum?  Hopefully I will be able to satisfy this curiosity and describe the upcoming changes in future blogs ... stay tuned.

The last Hercules on the ground at the South Pole, delivering the last load of fuel that will keep us warm for the winter.  We now have more than enough fuel in storage for the winter. 

Most of the winterovers came out to the skiway to say the last good-byes to the summer people leaving.

After the fuel is unloaded the flight engineer invites the passengers to board, and the population splits: the summer people walking in a line to the airplane, with the winterover remaining behind the flag line, facing the next 8 months of winter isolation.

The last plane on the ground, ready to take off, with a few winterorovers watching.  I walked back to the station to take some photos of this emotional moment from the second floor deck.

As tradition goes, the last plane performs a flyover on the station upon departure and tips its wings to signal a good bye.  We will not see another Hercules until October, and there will be no way out of here until then.  The closest people to us are now the dozen or so winterovers in the Russian station of Vostok, several hundred miles away, or, at the right time of day, the astronauts circling the earth in the International Space Station.

I took this photo in the afternoon of Feb 15, and sent it to the University of Colorado to be part of a project to document in photos the world weather on one particular day.  They were looking for photos from Antarctica.  They wanted the photo to show land and sky.  Well, it was not that hard here.  It looks pretty much the same here, anywhere you look, just white ice and blue skies ... nothing else.

The weather changed dramatically a couple of days later, as we got the rare phenomenon of fog at the South Pole, which covered everything in frost.  Here are some of our meteorological instruments on the roof of the Atmospheric Research Observatory.  The station, only 1/4-mile away is invisible, with the Cosmic Ray Platform barely visible on the ice 1/10 of a mile away.  It looks cold, but it is actually not, at -28 C (-18 F).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How do you get to the South Pole?

Several of my friends have been asking me, so, with the "tourist" season now officially over, I figured I would answer with a blog.  The short answer is that there are several ways, but none of them is easy, each requiring lots of time, or lots of money, or both.

The way I came here requires no money, but lots of time - almost two years, to be exact.  You have to apply for a job, go through interviews, then go through medical, dental, and psychological exams (yes, they check that you are a little crazy to be wanting to do this, but not too much, just the right balance), then you have to go through several weeks of training, and finally you get to fly to the South Pole.  This is also the only way to experience a winter at the South Pole.  The nice thing is that all is provided free of charge (from airfare to top-of-the-line clothing, to recreational equipment, to food and lodging), and you get paid on top of that: a great deal if you can leave a house, or a family, or a job, all at the same time, for the 13-month deployment.

Everyone else who shows up at the South Pole, either as part of an organized tour, or as an adventurer whose stories end up in magazines and books, is called a "tourist".  This year we had about 200 of them.
Most of them came with an organized trip.  There are two tour operators that fly to the South Pole: The Antarctic Company (TAC) flies out of Cape Town in South Africa to the Russian station at Novo, at the edge of Antarctica, using a Russian-built jet plane, then on to the South Pole with a Basler DC-3; Adventure Network International (ANI) flies out of Punta Arenas in Chile to Union Glacier in Antarctica and on to the South Pole using Twin Otter airplanes.
The most popular tour, for about $40,000, is a 1-week trip to Antarctica with a 4-hour stop at the South Pole.  55 people chose this option this year.  Most of them are wealthy entrepreneurs and their families.  Some of them, besides being wealthy, have personal goals to reach unusual destinations.  In this group of people some had already been at the North Pole, and were now stamping their passports with the South Pole emblem.  We also had the youngest person ever to attain both the North and the South Pole (an 11-yr old, if you can believe it).  One drawback of these trips, in my opinion, is that they are short.  There is no time to acclimatize to the 10,000 ft of physiological altitude of the pole, and, because airplanes will only fly in good weather, the people who choose this option will not be able to experience the harshest conditions of strong winds and whiteouts that make the Pole such an extreme environment.  But if you do not have a lot of time, or do not want to be exposed to the elements, and want to have a photo at the South Pole and see Antarctica, this is a great way to do it, and everyone who came seemed to have a great time.

I was giving a tour of the station to a group of 12 tourists on Jan 3, when I heard someone speak Italian.  It turned out to be a father and son from my native city of Rome: Mauro and Alex Sentinelli.  We exchanged email and, who knows, maybe we'll be able to get together again in more temperate climates.  Here we are enjoying cookies and soft drinks in the station lounge before the welcome message from the station manager.  Even the tourists who show up at the pole for just 4 hours may get a 90-minute tour of the station, if they pre-arrange their visit.

The next most popular tour option, for $50,000, is to ski the last degree.  An airplane drops you off at 89 degrees of latitude,  and you have one week to ski to the Pole dragging a sled and camping along the way, before being picked up again at the Pole.  I think this is a great way to explore the South Pole, because you will experience the cold, the wind, the whiteout, but you do not need to be a superathlete or experienced adventurer.  38 people this year chose this route.
A smaller version of the last degree option is the 1/4 degree option, offered by TAC, which maintains a fuel cache 17 miles from the South Pole.  The airplane will drop you off at the fuel cache and you have one day to ski the last 17 miles to the Pole.  21 people chose this option this year.
12 people this year chose to camp at the Pole for 24 hours.  They arrived, camped out, and flew out the next day.
The highest tier of "tourism" is to ski all the way from the coast to the South Pole.  11 people this year accomplished this feat.  8 of them were a group of Indian militaries, with 1 additional person joining them, and two of them went solo.  Nobody this year did the crossing of the continent or the roundtrip from the coast to the pole and back, although one of the solo skiers attempted the coast-to-coast trip, but ran out of time.  He will try again next year.  I did not see anyone this year skiing with the aid of sails, a technique pioneered by Reinhold Messner and Arved Fuchs in their 1989 crossing of the continent, although several people travelling by vehicles brought sails along and were practicing at the South Pole.

A group of three skiers celebrates their arrival at the South Pole on Dec 15 after skiing the last degree.  I was coming back to the station after my morning run when I saw them coming in the distance, so I extended my run to go meet them and welcome them to the South Pole.  Here they are, with their sleds in the background, setting up their tent at the campground that we prepare for the tourists every year, about a half mile away from the station.  They would enjoy the South Pole for a whole day before the ANI airplane would pick them up the next day.

A completely different way to reach the Pole is by vehicle.  This is probably the most expensive way of doing it, and there are no commercial outfitters that will organize such exploits.  Five groups this year came by vehicle, for a total of about 60 people.  They came in Toyota trucks, Ford Econolines, solar-powered electric snowmobile, and home made experimental vehicles.  I already blogged on the Indian Traverse and on the reality TV show about the German/Austrian ski race.  There was also another expedition from the Kazakhstan National Geographic Society that arrived by Toyota Arctic Trucks on Dec 10 and stayed less than a day before driving back to Novo, where they had come from.  The other two quite unique vehicle expeditions were the Moon-Regan expedition and the Park-Yeong-Seok expedition.
The Moon Regan takes its name from the expedition leaders: Andrew Moon and Andrew Regan.  They had two unique objectives: the first was to cross the continent from coast to coast in two modified Ford Econoline vehicles; the second was to drive an experimental biodiesel vehicle  from the coast to the Pole. 

The two modified Ford Econoline vehicles made it to the Pole from Union Glacier on Dec 4.  They would then drive another 600 km to the edge of the continent on the Ross Ice Shelf before coming back to the Pole to pick up the mystery bug and drive all the way back to Union Glacier.

At the station we called this the Mystery Bug.  It came with the Moon Regan expedition.  It is propelled like an airplane, it uses biodiesel, and slides on the snow on skis.  It was supposed to be the fastest land vehicle at the South Pole.  We were hoping to see it break a world record, and some of us were hoping that we would be able to take it for a test ride, but we never saw it moving on its own power.  It stayed with us for several days while the Moon Regan expedition went to the Ross Ice shelf and back.  We never figured out the real deal: did it make it to the South Pole on its own, or did it break down and had to be towed?

The Park Yeong-Seok expedition had as an objective to drive solar-powered snowmobiles from the coast to the South Pole.  They made it in 60 days.  They could only travel two hours before their batteries would need recharging, and it would tale 10 hours of sunshine to recharge.  They were stopped for extended periods of time in overcast conditions.  This was a very noble and successful efforts, although not a zero-carbon trip, when you account for all the logistics involved, with lots of room left for improvement.

The Park Yeong-Seok expedition camping at the tourist campground with their electric snowmobile, charging their batteries in the pale sun of Jan 29.  To compensate for the low solar irradiance at these high latitudes, they used the most efficient solar panels on the market, from SunPower.  The station can be seen in the far background.

So, there are many ways to get to the South Pole, given enough money or enough time.  But why get here in the first place?  As Reinhold Messner wrote in his book "Antarctica Both Heaven and Hell", getting to the South Pole is not like climbing a mountain.  The top of a mountain is a unique feature on the landscape, very different from the surrounding terrain; but when one reaches the South Pole, there is nothing to indicate that it is a special place.  All the meridians converge here, but you cannot see them.  You can stand on the axis of rotation of the earth, but you can't tell that anything is moving.  You could be standing a few miles away from the South Pole and you could not tell the difference, except for the station buildings.  Everything is absolutely flat.  There is only the white ice and the blue sky.  Nothing else.  If the weather is bad you cannot even tell the difference between the ice and the sky, and you feel like you are inside a ping pong ball.  So why spend all this time and money to get here?  I can't tell you why.  All I can say is that this is the purest and most wonderful place on earth.  I just hope that if you decide to swing by you can spend as much time as possible, because it gets better every day.