Monday, March 11, 2013

To 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.