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.