Saturday, December 15, 2012

Onto the ice (Dec 2012)

It's always a long process, but I'm here now at the South Pole Station working hard on the Askaryan Radio Array (ARA) experiment. More on the experiment in a few days, but let me comment on the logistics of getting down here, to 90 degrees South. It's easier than it was a hundred (and one) years ago when Amundsen and Scott raced for the Pole in a mix of glory and death. Now it's all about hurrying up to wait and getting crammed into economy class airline seats.

Departed from Madison, Wisconsin at 1pm on the 6th of December. To Chicago (two hour late departure). To Los Angeles. Then on a Qantas Airbus 380 to Sydney (lots of empty seats, something I'm not used to on the US domestic flights). Then recheck in with Emirates for a (late departing, this was the end of a Frankfurt-Dubai-Bangkok-Sydney-Christchurch run) hop to Christchurch, New Zealand. Arrive in New Zealand around 5pm on Saturday. Partly the international date line to blame but that is still 33 hours in transit.

On Monday morning, picked up our cold weather gear at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center, not the one in Atlanta) and got all of the little prep items for heading to the ice. Then Tuesday morning, showed for the flight to the ice, have to be wearing the cold weather boots (brought my own for the first time, a pair of Baffin Expedition -100F rated boots), overalls (Carhartts for those who plan to work outside), and coat ("Big Red"). The larger military transports had been pulled back to the states over December & January this year, so the flight south was on a ski-equiped LC-130 Hercules. ("It might not get there today, but it will get there.") Rather a bit slower than the more streamlined planes, so it was about 8 1/2 hours down to McMurdo, ensuring, with a late takeoff, that we'd miss dinner in McMurdo. Of course we had to get keys to the rooms (you have to lock your room in McTown), sheets (laundry open from 10-11pm), and "bag drag" for the South Pole flight. Bag dragging is tagging and weighing your bags up for loading onto a pallet. You also have yourself and your carry on weighed.

There are also the interminable briefings. Before getting cold weather gear, before boarding the plane, when you arrive at McMurdo, and then when you want to do most anything else. They're generally aimed at what seems to be about a fifth grade audience. Am told they're more sophisticated than many of the warning and orientation videos in the military. They abstract to something like "don't do anything bad or stupid, here are some things we think are bad or stupid, but we reserve the right to expand our definition at any time" and "drink lots of liquids." The latter is an excellent suggestion.

Our flight to Pole was supposed to be the next day, Wednesday morning, but it didn't go. The flight had been an alternate for a mission to Pine Island Glacier (PIG) and the weather there was good enough for them to go. On the plus side, go a fair amount of email caught up on and a good walk-around taking some pictures around the station. Try again on Thursday.

Thursday we arrive for transport, but another delay, two more hours. Return two hours later and make the hour long (very bumpy Delta) ride to the Pegasus airfield. Pegasus is named after a crashed plane embedded in the ice at the end of the runway. Much of Antarctica works that way, the other airfield is Willy Field named after the Navy Seabee whose D8 tractor dropped through the ice and was never recovered. Neither was Williams. And I'm at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station named for the brilliant Norwegian explorer and some British guy who was a bad leader and got his team killed with a mix of bad planning and bad leadership.

Anyway, taking off from Pegasus, it's a short flight to South Pole, about three hours, in an LC-130. There are only a handful, I've heard six or seven, of these ski-equipped cargo planes in the world. They're loud (hearing protection required throughout the flight), slow (big skis hanging in the wind), have erratic thermostats (alternates barely tolerable hot air and freezing cold air), and are often tightly packed with cargo, overdressed passengers, and trip-hazard cargo straps. This flight was reasonably empty though, only a few passengers, and not much cargo.

At Pole, there's a last briefing via video for those who haven't been to Pole previously. I've heard that it's shorter and better organized than the old video...

This season there's a new contractor providing the Polar support for the National Science Foundation, and there have been lots of changes. First one to note is that everyone is in the station. The new elevated station at the South Pole was built to house 156 folks, but the last few years when I've been down here the population was well over 200, with a high of about 240 if I remember right. The rest of the folks lived in Summer Camp, a series of hard-sided tents called "Jamesways" that hosted the less senior folks (people making their first trips to the ice, people not having a lot of "ice time") and the most raucous parties. With fewer people at Pole there are also only single shifts each day for cargo and some of the vehicle operations. Overall, quieter.

And of course this season has seen relatively few tourists. Last year with the centennial celebrations for the Amundsen and Scott expeditions, we had hosted the Norwegian Prime Minister and several hundred tourists who had come in for the anniversary. This year there have been a couple of planes, with one woman having a lot of trouble trying to kite-snowboard around the Pole marker. Around the ceremonial pole, more on the different South Poles later.

So now that I'm here at the Pole, it's time to adjust to the altitude (a bit less than 10,000ft and very dry which makes it feel higher) and get to work. The Internet connections are only in few hour blocks during the course of the day and are rather slow as well. So look for occasional updates from 90 degrees South. Also, feel free to send email questions to me at my (temporary) email and will try to answer them here on the blog.

Network slowness is keeping me from posting photos right now. Will try again later.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Starting the journey south

Packing up today, one bag for general purpose clothes to wear in New Zealand and around the station, and a second bag with the heavy clothes, thermal undies, goggles, wool socks, and insulated overalls for Pole. Flight tomorrow from Madison to Chicago, then Chicago to Los Angeles, then LA to Sydney, and finally Sydney to Christchurch. Also trying to reduce the weight in my backpack, laptop, camera with lenses, ipod, ipad, notebook, postcard stamps, books, sunglasses, chargers, etc. Each time I head to Pole I swear I will take less with me, and I do tend to cut back each trip, but probably not quite by enough...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

More on the Planetarium camera system

The folks who make the camera that we'll use to film planetarium content down at the South Pole this season is RED, the same folks who make the cameras for filming The Hobbit. We'll have a big fisheye lens on it though for >180 degree views that will map onto the planetarium screen. Cool stuff.

So, will the ARA drilling join the other projects filmed with the RED camera system? Yes, it will! We're looking to get good footage of the ARA drilling, deployment, and Antarctic shots of the South Pole Station, IceCube Laboratory, and normal Pole operations.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Education and outreach from the South Pole

Hello friends, family, and random assorted peoples...

Am putting together the start of a plan for my education and outreach activities while I'm at the South Pole this season working on ARA. Will be at Pole from about 5 December until about 10 January, and would love to work with any and all school programs or other outreach activities.

What I'm currently planning:

1. Will be one of the folks trained on the Milwaukee Planetarium's fisheye video camera, so we'll get some footage of ARA, and the general Antarctic program efforts for that medium.

2. Will be writing to this blog. In past years, have answered questions from my daughters' and other school classes. Hope to do that again, so if there is a science (or possibly other interested class, perhaps geography?) class that would like to interact via questions and answers (or possibly also via a voice or video conference), do let me know so we can work out the  details.

3. If anyone, or a class, or whatever, would like a postcard postmarked from the South Pole, let me know in email.

4. Is there something you'd like to have flown or worn at the South Pole? School flags, club t-shirts, or the like are easy enough. Send me an email and we can figure out the details.

Other ideas? Happy to hear about them and see if we can make it work out in some sensible way. Shipping deadlines and scheduling of conference call deadlines are coming up soon (in October or very early November at the latest).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Planning for next season...

"I may say that this is the greatest factor — the way in which the expedition is equipped — the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck." -- from The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen (1912)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

End of the Antarctic Season

Going to wrap up for this season, almost certainly back to Pole again next year for a deeper drill, and a couple of ARA stations. Thanks much!

Additional South Pole/Antarctica Q&A

These are the final batch of student questions and answers for this season. Some questions may have been paraphrased...

1. Why all the costumes for the New Years Party? Isn't that more of a Halloween thing?

Well, folks tend to dress up in costumes for all of the parties at the South Pole. I haven't been there for a Halloween Party yet, but I imagine it'll be similar. Basically folks at Pole work very hard, normal is a six day work week and typically more than eight hours per day in a harsh environment. So when it's time for a party, folks go all out. The bright, anime-like, wigs seem quite particular to Antarctic parties, not sure about their origin, but they were popular the first time I was on the ice, in McMurdo, in 2002 so it's not a new thing.

2. Who gets to go to Antarctic for these experiments?

Within the experimental groups, there are some folks who obviously want to go to Pole, and others who will do anything to avoid it. So you take the former group of people, trying to match skills to tasks that need to be done on the ice. Some people get into the habit of going each year, either their job really is tied to work on the ice, or they enjoy it. Most of the people at the South Pole aren't working on a specific scientific experiment, they're there to work at the station. They're hired by the contractor which runs the station, through this season it had been Raytheon Polar Services Corporation and in the future with be Lockheed Martin. These folks could be cooks, vehicle mechanics, heating repair people, dishwashers, computer network technicians, or a host of other jobs. The job gets them to the Pole.

3. Beards?

They are pretty common on guys in Antarctica, though you have to start off with "academics" and "rock-climbers" as the stereotypical groups of people headed down there, and beards are more common with those groups than with the average person. Then add into it, "keeping your rather delicate cheeks warms" and perhaps some level of "two two-minute showers per week" and beards seem more reasonable.

4. What's up with all of the weird rings and stuff around the sun?

A number of solar phenomena are much more common at the South Pole than they are elsewhere. In the same way in which rainbows, and double rainbows, are common in Hawaii, sundogs, solar pillars, and solar arcs are common at the Pole. These solar lighting phenomena are caused by light scattering from ice crystals that are relatively close to the viewer. At the Pole where "blowing ice crystals" is a common weather description, these light displays are also relatively common, though super-impressive. See Wikipedia (this article and links from this article) for more information.

5. If I wanted to go to Antarctica, what should I do?

There are basically four routes to the ice:
- Science: A few undergraduate students get to go to Antarctica on research projects, but by and large it's graduate students and more senior researchers. So to get there via this route requires dedication to a research topic that happens to involve work in Antarctica.
- Support: This one is easier, there is a job fair each year (Raytheon previously, Lockheed in the future) with jobs ranging from GA (general assistant, typically 18-20 year old with no particular work experience) through the skilled crafts (carpenters, HVAC, mechanics, computer help desk...) and through management (shop foreman, station manager...). A good fraction of people are primarily interested in Antarctica above and beyond the job particulars.
- Tourism: Yes, you can hop on a boat and see the Antarctic Peninsula (the part below South America, it's a lot warmer than the rest of the continent and has more wildlife on it), or book a flight through one of the adventure tourist shops and fly into the Pole. Or fly to sixty miles from the Pole and ski the rest of the way in. Or parachute out over the South Pole. It's not cheap, but plenty of folks are doing it.
- Exploration: You're not going to be first to ski in to the South Pole. But no one has bicycled to the Pole yet (oops, looks like it happened a couple of hours ago). Driving to the Pole (in a Toyota pickup) is a normal thing now, but no one has made it in a hovercraft or driving a 2CV or behind the wheel of an art car. Find a niche, find some sponsors, and don't forget to bring a satellite phone with you in case things go horribly wrong.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Arthur's Pass (NZ) by rail

For a day of R&R in New Zealand, took the train up to Arthur's Pass, in the Southern Alps, and did a little bit of sightseeing and hiking.

This is a Kea, the world's only alpine parrot. I wasn't able to get a good shot of its bright red under-wing plumage because there were multiple parrots ganging up on me and trying to steal my lunch.

As an aside, I had a beer and a pork pie snack in the late afternoon in an Arthur's Pass restaurant/cafe called the Wobbly Kea. The music playing in that place definitely transported me to a time and place far from the South Island. I sat down to Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" which smoothly segued into "Rhinestone Cowboy" then "Coward of the County" and finally "Jolene" before I moved to an outside table. Don't get me wrong, "Jolene" is a great song and I do respect The Man in Black, but somehow it was all just too far off for a alpine cafe in New Zealand. When I went back in to drop off my dishes, the stereo was off.

Christchurch in January

While I was on the ice there was another moderate-sized aftershock on the 23rd of December and there was additional damage in the Christchurch area and the coastal area there as well. I did get to experience a 5.2 magnitude aftershock while I was in town. Woke me up in the early morning hours.

Construction and destruction ongoing...

A city of containers. I think containers are one of the great, little-heralded, inventions of the 20th century and if you wanted to ever be extremely bored, I could talk about them for hours. Or just check out Wikipedia on the intermodal container, and then follow some links from there...

Later in January, Christchurch will host the World Busker Festival, but there were a good number of street performers already in the earthquake-shattered city. This Scottish gentleman was juggling knives.

This gal was a (slightly-) moving angel sculpture.

And a simple duck was amazingly fascinating to someone who had been on the ice for weeks...

Out of Antarctica

Well, I've been back in the States for well over a week, need to finish up my Antarctica blog postings a touch off of real-time. I'm going to blame the SOPA protests for the latest of these entries.

To fly away, we first caught a Herc from the South Pole up to McMurdo. The flight was a day late due to mechanical problems with another Herc the day before. In this shot we're just landed in McMurdo, and the plane is being onloaded. The ski-do will take away the pee jar from the plane.

Hours later, our next ride comes into town. A C-17 air force transport bringing people and gear into McMurdo, and will take us north to New Zealand by morning.

Good-sized crowd of folks waiting for the plane out. Including some people who had been expelled from the continent for bad behavior. Long story...

Cargo on our flight included this prop blade assembly for a Herc. There wasn't an obvious problem with it... And in the foreground some biological and water samples marked "do not freeze" and "keep refrigerated." They were...

Partway through the five hour, 35 degree F, airplane flight. Folks hiding and trying to sleep in their parkas. But green, warm, damp New Zealand awaits!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The journey home

Am in Christchurch right now, next stop Sydney, Australia, followed by Honolulu, Hawaii. More from there...

So, the Herc windscreen appears to have been fatigue damage rather than a bird strike. Did some touring around New Zealand, more on that too...

And I know I owe some A's for the Q's...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

South Pole Departure

Well, our first flight attempt out of here was yesterday. The plane took off from McMurdo heading for Pole, turned around and landed. They had a cracked windshield, possibly caused by a bird strike on takeoff. Penguins don't fly, so that was probably a skua.

This morning the flight was canceled due to bad weather in McMurdo. But there's a new scheduled flight for dinner time tonight that might work!

Once I'm back to the land of reliable internet, will post pictures from the last few days. And answer the last batch of questions I got. Look for that soon!

I did want to link two excellent articles from the New York Times for the Amundsen 100th anniversary of the achievement of the Pole which also highlight the modern Antarctica. Article and editorial.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

January 1, 2012 at the South Pole

Every year on New Years there is the official "moving of the Pole." The ice sheet that the South Pole Station sits on moves about an inch per day, so at the end of the year it's about 10m (30ft) different. On New Years the official Pole marker is unveiled. Here the station manager (left, Bill) and NSF representative (right, Vladimir) are about to remove the red cloth...
There it is. The nicely machined brass Pole marker that will remain up for a year, and then go into the cabinet of old Pole markers in station.
Most of the folks on station showed up for the (very brief) ceremony. Basically thirty seconds of speech each by three people. Then photo ops...
Here's last year's Pole marker.
And a close up of this year's marker, making clear the 100th anniversary connection with the iconic image 100 years ago.