Wednesday, November 30, 2011

McMurdo arrival

So, you've flown from home all the way to Christchurch on the south island of New Zealand, felt saddened by the earthquake damage, been issued your ECW (EXTREME Cold Weather) clothing, and flown on a load, crowded military transport for hours. Now what?

Well, you hop off the plane into the brilliant sunlight (sunshine plus reflected sunlight off of all of that ice), feel some wind and surprisingly warm air (it is Antarctica, but it's summer, you're on the coast, and it's probably around 20-25F). What's next?

A slog of bureaucracy. Load up and go to the NSF Chalet HQ and hear about safety, recycling, rules, regulations, changes in the rules, and then you explain what you want to do when you leave Antarctica (for the travel office) and then you get a room key. Drop your stuff off in the room, go to the laundry facility and get some sheets, drop off the sheets, find some food. Then your bags arrive on the base and you go haul those off to your room.

And for those of us heading on to Pole, we turn our bags back over to the cargo folks, get ourselves weighed again, and prepare for another flight. Hopefully the next morning.

From the C-17 cockpit

As a nice treat, we got to go up into the cockpit of the C-17 enroute down to the ice.

Went up there once in the middle of the flight and then again later as we were crossing the ice sheet (see previous entry for some photos).

Aerial images of the approach to McMurdo

Military cargo aircraft tend not to have very good windows for folks in back... Got a few pictures out of the small windows.

The sea ice breaking up as we get closer to McMurdo and Ross Island. (So, the Antarctic ice sheet sits on top of land, and in a few places there is exposed land, one of those places is Ross Island home of McMurdo.)
Open water channel. Not sure on the map where we were exactly. These last couple of shots were taken from the cockpit.

Post-quake Christchurch (The somewhat good)

One good sign was the number of cranes in the central business district, work is going on. Buildings being demolished, and hopefully others repaired, restored, and rebuilt.

On the weekends, you can follow the safety instructions and take a walking path (down the middle of the street past broken buildings) into the Cathedral Square. Was in Christchurch during the middle of the week, so that wasn't an option for me. But good to see some access to the city despite legalish and safety issues.

It wasn't exactly hopping, but there is a new "mall" build up of ISO standard shipping containers (which I happen to, as a true geek, like a lot). It looks pretty good, kind of edgy and surprisingly effective for small, specialty shops. I could picture a shopping mall of containers working in a US city as well. These were built in an older established shopping district whose previous buildings were destroyed by the quake.

No trams running any longer. The red containers in the middle (with windows) are a coffee shop.

And the World Buskers Festival will be back in 2012. I'll probably be back through Christchurch next year and hope to see big improvements.

Post-quake Christchurch (The BAD)

Each year when I go to Antarctica, I spend time in Christchurch, New Zealand for a few days before and after Antarctica. It's a green place, warm in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer, and quite friendly. There are good restaurants, and if you've forgotten something from up North, you can find it in New Zealand.

Last year in December and January when I was there, the city was recovering from the September 2010 7.1 magnitude quake. The city was recovering rather well I thought, you can look back to last year's entries and see some damage in photos, but most things were in good shape. Well, not long afterward there was the February 2011 6.3 magnitude quake which caused significantly more damage, and many deaths. 10,000 homes to be demolished. Most of the larger buildings downtown need to be brought down as well.

So, I spent a couple of nights in Christchurch on my way south to Pole, and took a look around...

There are a lot of commercial buildings that look like this now. Standing, but with broken windows and emptied offices. Some are being demolished, others are just fenced off. Probably to be demolished later. The businesses are gone, elsewhere or nowhere.

One can just see the Christchurch Cathedral in the distance, but one can't go any closer. The whole central business district is fenced off, maybe a radius of 4 blocks or so centered on Cathedral Square. I circumnavigated the fencing, seeing lots of abandoned and badly damaged residential and commercial buildings inside and outside the fence line. There were also a number of empty lots of previously demolished buildings. And this is now nine months later!

A church at the periphery of downtown, the roof is collapsed and there are workers who are appearing to try to preserve the bell tower section of the church.

I looked through the window of a coffee shop, and there was still a copy of the 22 February 2011 newspaper sitting on the counter. The building abandoned, it didn't appear too badly damaged, but it was right on the edge of a very dead commercial zone.

Active demolition work and abandoned piles of debris on many street corners.

It was very sad to see the city in this condition. None of the downtown hotels I had previously stayed at were functioning, all were within the exclusion zone. None of the businesses (mostly restaurants, coffee shops, and tourist gift shops) that I knew were extant. Many were inside the fence, some outside the fence had simply vanished, others were closed but some signs were still present.

There was various mentions of blame for the failure of reconstruction on insurance companies unwilling to insure buildings and, in some cases, workers in buildings in Christchurch, and also on safety rules that might be reasonable in ordinary conditions, but that were a huge problem in emergency conditions. Hard for me to tell much about this from a quick visit.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My old colleague Scott Nutter

He's in McMurdo (which isn't quite the bottom of the world, but you can fly nonstop to there) working on the CREST experiment and has a rather nice blog of life in McMurdo. Do check it out!

Preparations around the IceCube Lab (ICL)

ARA drill systems showing up around the ICL.

Loading ramp up to the ICL. Nice and clear day...

Photos are from just a couple of days ago. (Outhouse and waste line coming soon.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Last bits on the HAWC review

Am back from the site and from the Puebla Review of the HAWC experiment. There is some online information showing the schedule and documentation details of the review here at this location. The Photo Gallery is especially good.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Science and technical reviews

So, this is probably going to be a dull entry, but I wanted to detail what sort of event I'm attending this week down in Puebla. This is a review called by the funding agencies to assess the progress of the experiment and verify that the money is being spent well.

To do that, there are management folks from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy (the main US funders of the project), some science reviewers from similar (or not especially similar) projects acting as peer reviewers, and folks from the Mexican funding agencies (which have a complicated setup that I don't fully understand) here to listen to talks from all different pieces of the experiment and ask questions.

Physicists are generally, let's go ahead and stereotype a little bit, pretty critical, and willing to push on questions for which they are unable with the answers. So a Q&A with a panel of physicists can be a loud, even brutal business. Obviously the management folks are much more reserved in such questioning. So talks have to be vetted ahead of time and delivered with some care.

So far the review has been going well, the project is in relatively good shape. Some things, especially for the site construction work, have been moving slowly, but delays are of a few months, nothing too horrible. The project now has about 135 people in the US and Mexico, and the total budget for the project will be on the order of $15M.

Last year and this coming year IceCube Winterovers

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A few nature photos from my last visit to the HAWC site

Minor detour from the South Pole

This week I'm headed to Puebla, Mexico for the joint NSF-DoE (National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, the two main US funding sources for science that isn't related to your congressman's liver (that would be the National Institutes of Health, funding whatever the congressfolks are scared of medically)) review of the HAWC experiment. This is a science and management review to make sure that we're spending the taxpayer money well, and that the project is progressing reasonably.

HAWC is the High Altitude Water Cherenkov experiment. That means it's being built at high altitude, 4100 meters or about 14000 feet above sea level, in order to get higher up into the cascade (or shower) of energetic particles produced when cosmic rays or gamma rays hit the top of the atmosphere. The detector technology is Water Cherenkov, that is, we observe the light emitted from fast-moving particles traversing through a water tank. The light is detected with photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) capable of seeing single photons with nanosecond (billionth of a second) resolution. It's the gamma rays at energies at the top of the atmosphere of near 1 TeV (10^12 electron volts) that are of particular interest.

One of the main goals of HAWC is to observe the whole sky (rather than like an optical telescope, just the small patch of the sky one is aimed at) in these TeV gamma rays (which are super-high energy photons) for transient sources. The main goal is to observe gamma ray bursts (GRBs, very energetic astronomical explosions much of the way across the universe) at higher energies than previously seen. This would enable us to better understand the physics of the GRB sources and the propagation (travel) of the photons from those sources to the Earth.

To one specific high altitude valley in Mexico to be precise. It's a beautiful site, so look for photos in the next couple of days...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

First LC-130s at Pole

Thanks to Freija for the photos (from the weekly Winter-Over report). The LC-130s are ski-equiped US military transport planes operated by the New York Air National Guard (NYANG, with various pronunciations of the acronym).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

First arrivals at South Pole

The two IceCube Winter-Overs are enroute from McMurdo down to the South Pole today. They'll gradually take over, during the next two or so weeks, from the previous Winter-Overs. The two of them will run the IceCube instrumentation at Pole during the next twelve months with oversight from the Northern Hemisphere. But when a fan is blocked, and the over-temperature alarm sounds for a computer (odd thinking about overheating at the South Pole!) and a beeper goes off, it's one of the Winter-Overs who slogs the mile from the South Pole Station over to the IceCube Laboratory regardless of the time of day or the weather.

Some of our other colleagues are also heading that direction, and some of my ballooning colleagues are in McMurdo already getting ready to prepare the CREST instrument for flight. (CREST is a novel attack on the problem of understanding the TeV electrons in the cosmic radiation, see the talk here for (technical) details.)

The first flights in and out of Pole are on Baslers (see photo above, modified DC-3s, airframes over 50 years old!). More on those planes some other time...