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Thursday, April 14, 2011

The South Pole Kitchen

One reason I would like to be a millionaire some day is so that I could afford a house with a large, professional kitchen, equipped with all kinds of appliances and utensils, all within easy reach.  Until that day I may have to keep coming to the South Pole, where I have at my disposal a million-dollar kitchen every week-end that I feel like cooking.  Not only is the kitchen available to us non-chefs when the cooks take their day off from Saturday evening until Monday morning, but we also have 48 other friends willing to taste our culinary specialties or experiments, and ... we also benefit from the precious advice of our friends the cooks and the chef.
So I have been testing my favorite recipes over the past several weeks, first in small batches, then in larger and larger batches, making fettuccine, gnocchi, breads, and apple tartts. 

All the utensils, appliances, pots and pans are hanging from the ceiling or stowed under the wide stainless steel counters.  The knives, the most important tool in a kitchen, are always sharp and put away in their wood block.  The bulk ingredients, such as flour, rice, beans, are stored in easily accessible large bins.  At the end of the kitchen are two walk-in refrigerators and one walk-in freezer.   You wouldn’t think that we’d need a freezer here at the South Pole.  In fact most of our frozen food is kept on an outside deck, currently at -60C (-76 F), but it is nice sometimes to have a warmer freezer that you do not have to wear extreme cold weather gear to get in.  The kitchen is also equipped with a state-of-the-art polyphonic stereo system that we can plug our computers, iPods, or MP3 players in.

We even have an Italian pasta machine, directly from Italy, just like the one I have at home.  Here I am making some egg fettuccine on March 27.  Although we have fresh eggs (6,000 of them, kept fresh throughout the winter by a thin layer of oil patiently applied by a score of volunteers at the beginning of the season), I used eggs from a carton, to save the fresh eggs for breakfast.  Those eggs from the carton worked very well.  I also used a mixer, seen in the previous photo at the near end of the counter, instead of kneading the dough by hand.  This is a great help when dealing with 3 lbs of dough.  I dried the pasta and kept it in the refrigerator for serving it the following Sunday, Apr 3.

The day before, on March 26, I prepared green fettuccine by adding spinach to the dough.  They were also dried and refrigerated for serving the following week-end.   Because the air here at the South Pole Station is so dry (relative humidity about 3%), there is no need for a drying rack like I use at home.  Instead, I just lay the sheets of pasta on the kneading table for 20 minutes, and they are ready for cutting.  Once cut, the fettuccine dry completely within an hour or two without sticking.  This makes things a lot easier.

Last Sunday, April 10, I saw that nobody was using the kitchen, so I turned on some Italian opera sung by Pavarotti and jumped in to make some pasta again.  Here I am cooking a sauce made with diced tomatoes from a can, frozen brown mushrooms, fresh basil from our greenhouse, garlic and olive oil.  The mushrooms come straight from our outside deck at -60 C and take a long time to defrost, so I have learnt to start the sauce well ahead of time.  The range is electric, as we do not allow open flames in the station for reasons of fire safety.

One of the most convenient features in the kitchen is an electric kettle for boiling the pasta.  It is fed water by a faucet right above it, seen on the far left in the photo.  Even 2 or 3 gallons of water will come to a boil in about 5 minutes, and when the pasta is ready to drain, all we have to do is to tilt the kettle directly into a strainer, whose effluent is directly piped to a sink in the floor.  How convenient!  The only caveat is that cooking the pasta at our 10,500 ft (3,200 mt) of physiological altitude takes about three times longer than at sea level.
Here is Joselyn ready to enjoy a bowl of pasta with freshly baked 100% whole wheat bread (I was told that it would be difficult to make bread at the South Pole because of the elevation, but I found that it is not true).  Joselyn is one of my oldest acquaintances here at the South Pole, having met her for the first time at fire school in Denver back in September.  During the summer she was our greenhouse caretaker; in winter she is our waste specialist.  In real life she is a Park Ranger for the National Park Service, most recently at Big Bend National Park in Texas, where she leads Ranger walks and talks, and where she also did field study for her Master in Biology.  She loves classical music.
Here is Dale, serving Mexican food on March 26.  I also met him for the first time for fire school in Denver back in September.  He is one of our two meteorologists.  He writes the South Pole weather forecast every morning for our internal website.  His dream job, if he weren't a meteorologist, is to be a sous-chef.  Well, here at the South Pole he can have both.  This weekend he will be serving an Italian dinner to the entire station.
Before I close this blog I wanted to give you an idea of what things look like outside.  This photo was taken 13 days after sunset, on Apr 5, right at the end of civil twilight, with the sun 6 degrees below the horizon.  There is still plenty of light to see the buildings and still some orange color in the sky.  The building to the very far left is the station, seen a half mile away from the 10-mt telescope. 

In this photo taken on Apr 12, there is still some orange color in the sky, and the features on the snow are still clearly visible, although it is getting darker.  On this date we could see about 20 stars.  On April 13, it was dark enough that I was able to see my first aurora, although in the twilight it appeared grey as opposed to green and red, as they will appear when it gets really dark.  On April 15 the moon will rise and will circle around us continuously for two weeks before setting on April 29, so we expect the sky to brighten up again.
Latest weather report and forecast as of April 15: a storm coming from the Transantarctic mountains has been hitting us for the past 24 hours.  It has been blowing a 20-knot wind, and the forecast is for it to continue at least 4 or 5 days, with wind gusts exceeding 30 knots.  The temperature is -56C (-69 F), but could rise up to -45 C (-49 F).  Visibility has been less than 100 ft, and massive snow drifts are forming all over.  This storm may put an end to my South Pole running ambitions.  We'll see what is left of my running paths after the storm abates.  Meanwhile, I have been taking advantage of the time indoor to study to become a Ham Radio Operator.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Polar Twilights

We often hear that at the pole there are six months of day and six months of night, but I can now attest that this is far from the truth.  We have loooong twilights.
Before we can really call it night we get to experience and enjoy civil twilight, then nautical twilight, and finally astronomical twilight. 
Civil twilight starts at sunset and ends when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon.  At medium latitudes it lasts about a half hour.  Here at the pole it lasts 13 days, until April 5.  During civil twilight there is still plenty of light to move around outside.  The brightest planets and stars will appear by the end of civil twilight.  It has now been 10 days since sunset, and I have still been able to enjoy running and skiing outside without any impairment, except for the wind. 
Nautical twilight is the period when the sun is 6 to 12 degrees below the horizon.  At the end of nautical twilight the horizon is still visible, and most of the stars are visible, too.  It is during this period that we turn on our cameras to observe and record the auroras.  This period at the pole lasts 17 days, until April 22.
The last one, astronomical twilight, is defined by the sun being between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon.  The horizon is no longer visible.  It does not get any darker after the end of astronomical twilight, so that is when the night really starts.  Astronomical twilight will last 20 days, until May 12.  At that point there will only be 6 weeks left to the winter solstice, so the polar night should really only last about 3 months.
I look forward to observing the slow evolution of lights, from twilight to the night sky, with the appearance of the stars and of the auroras.  I look forward to the next moon rise, and to the lunar eclipse, which we will experience around mid-June.  Meanwhile, I am enjoying civil twilight.  On March 30 I took my camera with me on a 6.7-mile ski tour to document what the South Pole looks like at this very special time.

View towards the sun on March 30: 7 days after sunset.  The sun is about 3 degrees below the horizon.

View of the station on March 30.  There is still plenty of light to see the buildings and the features on the snow.  On this day the wind was very light, less than 5 knots, and the smoke out of our power plant created a slender and compact plume slowly drifting away.

This is a view of our beautiful 10-mt telescope against the sky opposite the sun.  While the sky was pinkish in the direction of the sun, it was of an intense blue in this direction.  Note the crust of ice on the sides of the building, produced by ice fog and wind in the preceding days.

I skied all the way out to one of the three wind turbines that were installed last summer and are being tested to support remote science experiments.  This one is located 1.5 miles away from the station, in the direction opposite to the skiway.  The path to the wind turbine is well marked with flags.

On the way back from the wind turbine I met my friend Robert, who was walking back to the station from the telescope.  He took this photo of me.  With a wind of less than 5 knots (6 mph) the -63 C (-81 F) temperature felt very comfortable.

Loving it here at the South Pole!

Robert is an astronomer, or, I should rather say, a polar astronomer.  He has already spent 6 winters here at the South Pole operating a variety of different microwave telescopes.  When not on the ice, he lives in the lovely town of Garmisch, in the Bavarian Alps (the site of one of the most famous downhill courses in the world cup ski circuit), or teaches nature classes on board cruise ships around the world.  He is also teaching an 11-hour college-level astronomy class here at the South Pole, every Monday after dinner.