Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Of Halos, Satellites and Sun Dogs

After writing the previous blog entry, I went to the weekly science talk at 8—now here’s something interesting for you. The talk was on the satellites we have down here and the future of communication. There are two satellites: TDRS and GOES, and our internet and telephone communications are completely limited to the times when they are up. We also have an iridium network that can be used all the time, but it’s quite pricey so it’s only used for emergencies and transferring important science data. Right now we have internet between about 1:30 and 10:30 in the morning (and because it’s based on the rise and set of the satellites the time is earlier by three minutes every day): the first satellite to come up is TDRS, which provides a quick connection. TDRS sets around 6 or 7 AM and we’re left to rely solely on GOES, which is quite slow, for the last 3-4 hours of satellite time. Basically, this setup isn’t exactly the most conducive to getting real work done if you’re on the day shift during the winter (good thing I’m not down here to work on my analysis!) So here’s the funny part: TDRS was launched in 1978 and has already outlived its expected lifetime by about 10 years. This means that at any moment (literally) hardware malfunctions could cause TDRS to stop communicating, leaving us strictly with GOES…the slow one…for about 7 hours a day. If we intend to keep doing science research down here, we need something better (because we do a lot of things like data transfer and phone conferences which GOES just can’t handle). So the talk was on the future of satellite communication down here at the Pole.

As it turns out, the future is quite bleak—there is a dearth of satellites that pass within view of the Pole, and for those that do we will have to compete with other science projects. This means that in addition to the 7 hours of achingly slow—and I’m talking slower-than-dial-up-in-1995 slow—GOES per day, there will also be about 2 hours of fast satellite connection during random parts of the day, mostly broken up in 15 minute or half hour chunks which simply will not work for things like phone conferences with the North or intensive data transfer. This is going to be a huge problem. The funniest part was that I was sitting next to a guy who had been a winter-over two years ago, and earlier that day I’d asked him if he’d ever do it again. He said no: once is really cool but never again—it would be a waste of time. At the end of the talk he leaned over and said, “Wow, yet another reason never to winter-over again. Can you imagine how bored they’re going to be?” Bummer for the winter-overs who get stuck the year TDRS fails! (But, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure they don’t sign up to spend the winter at the South Pole thinking, “Score! I’ll have all day long to surf the web!”)

Monday and Tuesday were spent much like Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I worked a lot and loved every second of it! Something that was unique about these days was the weather—we’ve been having lots of blowing ice crystals. Instead of raining or snowing, it’s actually sparkling! This means that we get…well, basically rainbows except that, since the index of refraction of the ice crystals is different than for water droplets, instead of just an arc you get an entire circle, or halo, of spectral colors around the sun. If you’re lucky you see a second halo around the first at the double the distance with the colors reversed (the double-rainbow equivalent). If you’re really lucky you see a band of light jetting out from the sun at a right-angle to the halos and circling the entire sky—this creates bright spots, known as “sun dogs”, where the band of light overlaps the halos. So for the past few days, every time I notice the sparkling I look to the sun and see a halo, sometimes with sun dogs—it’s entrancing! And what’s really cool is that every time you see a really good one you tell everyone else and half the station runs outside with their cameras—especially if you get the double halo with the sundogs. I’m told this is rare, so I’m really lucky to have seen it a number of times. How cool is that? Not so cold, actually, which is why we’re having the blowing ice that causes the halos! I’m attaching some photos, but even if I had a wide-angle lens I couldn’t do it justice—in real life the sparkling is…magical!

Photos coming soon!


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Work, Work, Wonderful Work!

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but the most exciting thing I’ve been doing the past few days has been work. Perhaps that sounds too droll…I should say instead: The past few days have been taken up entirely by work, and they have been the most enjoyable thus far! There is nothing to cultivate the appetite or deepen the slumber like fresh air, and 8 hours a day of the cleanest air in the world seems to work as a cure-all. So here’s how it started: I’d been telling people for a few days that I wanted a little more to do since DOM-testing really only takes up a few hours of my afternoons and some tiny bits of evening. This non-demanding job was great to start with because it allowed me to become acclimated and rest when I needed to—it granted me the freedom to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, generally. But after the first week this started to be a little…well, I started to feel listless. Everyone else was working really hard all the time, but I was taking breaks. I think the point at which you begin to feel like you’re slacking off is the point to take on more responsibilities. So on Friday and Saturday this week I spent the afternoons DOM-testing as usual, but I spent the morning helping IceTop people. This was great. Can you guess what I was doing? Me, over-educated super-skilled graduate student extraordinaire for whom thousands of dollars changed hands in order to allow for this trip? Yep, that’s right: I was shoveling snow!

This wasn’t just any snow: this was the snow off of the IceTop tanks, which meant that I actually got to see the IceTop tanks (which, if you remember, I’d missed doing when they filled the last one with water last week), check out how clear the ice is (under the snow), and talk with the people who helped with the design. (AND I got to drive a snowmobile…with a trailer behind it. That was pretty cool, too!) So three of us spent all morning on Friday and Saturday driving a snowmobile (with sled) between the 40 IceTop stations, unloading our sled of two ladders, two dustbins, a hand broom, a spade, a window-scraper, a measuring tape, a wrench, two foam thingies and two labeled posts. We’d toss all this gear down into the station—maybe 6 feet below ground level—toss ourselves over the edge after the gear (the beauty of working where there’s snow—this bit was more like sledding), and get to work. Each station contains two tanks, and each tank contains two DOMs and some large amount of optically clear ice. So we’d scrape the snow off the ice in each tank by climbing up the ladders, unhooking the sunshades that protect the tanks, sticking our butts way up in the air to bend over the edge of the tank, and using the scraper, the hand broom and two dustbins to collect the snow and toss it over the edge. Then we’d uncover all the cables outside the tanks using the spade, unscrew a plug (using the wrench) and stick the posts where the plug was and surround each one with a foam thingy to keep it upright. (The posts label each tank and stick way up above ground level so that when the stations become completely covered with snow we can still find them—ha ha!). Then we’d measure the height of the posts, take some photos inside the tanks, make notes of how much snow was on them, toss our gear back out over the edge of the stations, and scramble up the embankments. By the end we could do each station in about 15 minutes—depending on how much snow had collected on the ice (due to variations in orientation, some stations had half a foot of snow while others were just dusted with frost). After awhile this got a bit cold, but it was really exhilarating to be doing something constructive with my mornings! (Of course, I only spent 2 mornings doing it…). It also made me very hungry.

In the afternoons I ran another SPAT for dom-testing (which I won’t describe because you surely know the drill as well as I do by now), and then on Saturday evening I got to help deploy a string! Well, only the very beginning of a string before our shift ended, but still—pretty cool! Here’s how it works—the first step toward deploying a string is to drill through the fern layer—this is the layer of snow on top of the actual ice. This layer is maybe 50 ft. So we have a firn drill (which is more like a standard drill) that drills through that layer and after that we start the hot water drilling, which is really like using a firehose with a fancy nozzle and pointing it down at the ice. The special nozzle sprays water in all directions so that the ice melts evenly. The drillers work for maybe two days total until the hole is the proper depth of 2500m. (That’s two days unless the fern drill runs into something—like meat stores that were forgotten about and buried under 30ft of ice. This happened the other day and things took a bit longer for that hole. It also takes longer if there’s a problem with the hot-water hose, because if you shut off the hot water the hose freezes—this also caused some delays last week.) Then the drillers reel up the 2.5km of hose and clear out to the next hole. Now, don’t be deceived, we have it pretty posh these days—we drill and deploy inside mobile structures, called “tosses”. (The structures actually have serial numbers TOS1##### and TOS2##### which I assume is how they got their names.) Back in the early days they drilled and deployed outside, until they had the bright idea to block the wind with things like parachutes (apparently standing behind parachutes actually helped more than it got in the way, but I can’t imagine how). The TOS isn’t warm, per se-although it is heated—simply because it’s raised a few feet off the ground and isn't insulated (and because there’s a big hole going down 2500 m into ice which causes a slight draft of cold air to be constantly blowing through each TOS)—but it does block the wind, which helps a great deal. Anyway, back to how this works. The drillers finish and move on to the next TOS. Then the deployers come in and deploy a string while the drillers are drilling the next hole. Actual deployment takes about 5 hours, but there is lots of preparation which happens ahead of time, like un-boxing the DOMs that Jens and I have tested, sorting them, making sure each DOM has a form to fill out as it’s deployed, and all sorts of other things I don’t know anything about. Obviously, by the time I arrived on site most of this was done, though because we were a bit early (the time is hard to predict) we saw the last of the drilling equipment being removed from the holes. Once this happened we hooked up all of our main data cables and things and then we could finally begin. I was, of course, on DOMs. My job was to bring the DOMs from where they’re stored in the tos, remove the tape from the cables, remove the caps from the connector at the end of the each cable, insert a teeny tiny blue o-ring using a special o-ring insertion tool, and then, after the DOM itself is attached to the main cable, unspool the DOM cable as the DOM is lowered into the hole. This may sound really easy, but as a beginner it was a bit stressful and the pace is uneven, so sometimes I wasn’t doing anything, and other times it was too quick. But it was fun and interesting, and once again it was great to be doing something useful with my time.

Today before spending my afternoon DOM-testing, we finished off the deployment with the cable drag. This is where we drag the connector of the main cable over to the IceTop station where it will be hooked up for data-taking. I even found this interesting, though it involved a lot of standing around and waiting to be told to “Pull!” or “Stop!”

Until now, I really had no idea how all this worked. In fact, one of the most frustrating things about being here has been to be told “Oh, if you have free time just work on your analysis.” That’s silly. I can work on my analysis anywhere in the world, I can’t learn about the project from anywhere but here. So this entry may be boring to most of you, but to me this is the best part. This is what I’m here for, and to finally be doing things—to finally understand how things work on this project that I’ve donated 4 years of my life to (probably more since high-stress jobs shorten your lifespan)—is so cool it’s unbelievable!


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas and the Race Around the World

Before I went to bed last night I went down to the arts and crafts room looking for something to make Claire, the girl I work for/with on DOM-testing, for her birthday, which is Christmas Eve day. After browsing through all the bins and boxes, I decided that I wanted to sew something. But first I had to relearn how to use the sewing machine because it was hooked up all wrong. Plus there were all these tricks I forgot. Plus the arts and crafts room is sorely lacking in scissors, so I had to cut out the fabric with a knife! All I made was a little pouch to put candy in, but it took me nearly 3 hours to get it right! While I was at it, I decided to make a few more in case people were giving Christmas gifts. So, 5 hours later I had 5 very poorly made little pouches for candy. By this time I was so tired that I was just standing there giggling behind the sewing machine because the situation—with me and the knife and my pretty little pouches—was just ridiculous. But I managed to sneak it into Claire’s mailbox before they crashed into her room at 2 AM to wish her a happy birthday—apparently the first birthday she’s ever been able to spend with friends, since it’s Christmas Eve and back home everyone’s too busy to celebrate!—so I felt pretty well satisfied, even if it did take me until 2 in the morning!

In the morning our meeting was canceled—tomorrow’s as well—for the holiday. Hooray! So I slept in, called Tim, did my laundry (we’re allowed one load of laundry a week in cold water) sat in the greenhouse reading a book (they finally planted some vegetables in there so it smelled incredible—smells don’t really exist down here, so the greenhouse was really a treat) went to the birthday Sauna with Claire (NOT in our birthday suits) and got a shower—ah blessed shower! After the shower was the birthday party, hors d’oeuvres, Christmas dinner (the best part of which was the salad—we haven’t had fresh greens since I arrived—everything else was great too, of course: beef Wellington, lobster, asparagus, mashed potatoes and gravy, desserts…it was no Swedish meatballs, but it was good), more food, carol singing over the radio to people in remote locations, dancing, and generally an entire night of festivities. We even had a Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus! Pretty fun over all—but not at all like Christmas Eve at home, which made me somewhat homesick…I’ve never missed a Christmas. Hopefully I won’t miss one again.

Christmas morning arrived right on the heels of Christmas Eve, as it should—though somehow it seemed to arrive a tad more quickly than usual (probably due to the fact that I was awake until 5). At 9 AM on Christmas Day is the race around the world—it’s 2.3 miles completed in three laps, and the mode of transportation is not specified. We had runners, skiers, walkers (like me), bikers, float-riders, forklift drivers, couches pulled along on sleds behind treaded conversion vans, a sleigh pulled by “reindeer” (i.e. people)—which got ditched after the first lap—and last but not least, snow mobiles: overall, a motley but well-costumed crew. The only ones that count, though, are the runners. The one man and one woman who win the race by running get to go to McMurdo to compete in a further race (which apparently the Polies always win because we have the altitude and temperature advantage).

After the race, we collected our race around the world t-shirts and went to the IceCube All Hands meeting—it was really a gift-giving meeting, which was completely unexpected to me. I received a very nice leatherman, an IceCube t-shirt, and an IceCube keychain. They have varied gifts depending on how long you’ve been coming down (like a fleece, or a Carhart jacket, or an IceCube duffle bag—all quite nice gifts), but apparently this is the first year that non-drillers received gifts so I’m pretty lucky!

After the meeting, I went back up to second brunch to get an omelet and then I gave up: I couldn’t stay awake any longer, so I just went back to bed and slept until 4. This is the first time I’ve taken a serious nap down here, and I have to say it was really disconcerting—when I woke up I thought it was morning because it’s impossible to tell what time it is. At 4 the night shift is starting so there are people in the bathroom getting ready for the day. Add to that the fact that the sun is always out and there are always things going on, and you end up with a very strange afternoon awakening! I finally managed to drag myself to dinner which was leftovers from last night’s Christmas meal—of all the tasty choices, I picked only a huge salad—it was fantastic!

After dinner I played Scrabble with Freija (pronounced Fray-ah)—a friend and fellow IceCube grad student from Belgium. She nearly beat me! How humiliating would that have been, to lose in Scrabble by someone who isn’t even a native English speaker? I’d better start practicing!

But now it’s bedtime because I have to get up really early to call my family to wish them a Merry Christmas—I get three days of “Merry Christmas” instead of two this year—how cool is that? (Only -5 F with a windchill of -18 F! Everyone agrees that this weather is uncommonly mild at this time of year…but since the satellite isn’t up, we can’t check the records.)

Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cookies and Crazy Adventurers

Today was once again pretty typical—I’m definitely beginning to see a pattern. We had our 8 AM meeting, I wrote some code for a while after that, I did the analysis for our DOMs, we unhooked them in the afternoon, and that was it for work. But at 4:30 we had more House Mouse duties. This time, IceCube was supposed to clean up all the lounges—it’s amazing how fast this goes with lots of people. We were done in less than 20 minutes—nice! After dinner I joined the knitting circle for about an hour and met some new people, and then I got to make pies for Christmas dinner! I could have peeled potatoes yesterday, but pies just sounded so much better. However, I ended up somewhat disappointed. Those of us who signed up to make pies only actually had to make 15 pies—the shells already existed, and so did the cherry filling and the crumble topping, so all we had to do was scoop filling into the shells and put the crumbles on top. This took all of, maybe, 10 minutes. But then out came the cookie dough and we discovered that we had also signed up to roll out, cut and decorate about a bazillion cookies! Now, this is fun for about 20 minutes, but after an hour and a half it gets pretty old, especially when you don’t even have sprinkles to make it go quickly! In the beginning we were very precise—the stars were yellow, the Santas were red, the Christmas trees were green with pretty colored baubles (all mini M&Ms of course—due to a real lack of variety in decorating tools)…but by the end we were just sprinkling the toppings on top of the cookie trays and patting them down into the cookies in one big disorganized mess—it was pretty ridiculous!

Fortunately we were working in the galley, and in the galley at this time there happened to be a speaker. The speaker, Todd Carmichael, just arrived at the station, and has broken the record time for skiing from Patriot Hills, on the 80th parallel, to the South Pole (on the 90th parallel, of course). Except he didn’t ski, because his skis broke—after the 82nd parallel, he walked the rest of the way, dragging his sled and everything. He looks like he got into a bar fight because of the frost bite on his face (check out the photo below). But he broke the record! He was apparently walking 21 miles a day—can you imagine, 21 miles across snow- and ice-covered hills, valleys, and crevasses every day for 39 days dragging a sled containing all your food, supplies, and waste for that same amount of time? Apparently when he started he weighed 230 lbs and now weighs 178. In the last few days his food became contaminated with cooking fuel so he was literally starving when he arrived. His story was fascinating, and he was a masterful story-teller. Since he hadn’t had any time to recover we were lucky enough to catch him in this really strange mindset—it really was like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway. For example, he said that at one point he became angry with his sled (whom he referred to in the feminine and called "the polk") and kicked it. But then he felt really terrible because he had just kicked his only friend in the world and without “her” he wouldn’t be able to survive—he apologized and cried and everything! Imagine the mental state you must be in to do things like this—honestly, you have to be a bit crazy to even undertake such a challenge, so by the end it’s no wonder he was really losing it! I have to say, if I had to choose something to listen to that would keep me distracted while decorating cookies, this guy is definitely it.

How cool is that? Wow, incredibly cool! (But only a windchill of -30 outside—what’s going on here? It’s practically balmy!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Typical Day with House Mouse

Last night I did not sleep much. I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so since the satellite comes up in the middle of the night, I did work on my analysis. There’s something seriously wrong with that, I think! It must be because I didn’t do anything yesterday except hang around the station. Nice as it was, I should probably avoid that in the future!

I think I’d say that today was a pretty typical day. We had the morning meeting at 8 and I tried to take a nap after that since I didn’t sleep in the night. At one we went out to do the DOM Dance where, like I said before, we remove the old DOMs and hook up all the new ones. I managed to get all the photos I was missing from the previous DOM Dance, so I’ll be posting those soon.

By 4PM I was back inside because I had to take care of my House Mouse duties. What’s House Mouse? Well, once a week, each person is supposed to help clean the bathrooms in their wing. We are grouped by 4 or 5 rooms, so theoretically you’re never supposed to have to do it on your own. I was paired with two other people and I was in charge of the ladies’ room, which of course is much cleaner than the men’s. Normally cleaning would never make it into a blog, but cleaning here is a little bit interesting, actually, because we aren’t allowed to use water to do anything except mop the floors. This makes cleaning much more difficult and much more chemical-dependent—imagine for a minute cleaning a shower without any water. It’s really annoying to get all the long hair out! Plus, it’s a small space and you have to spray all these harsh chemicals all over and then stick your head in there, so I was coughing for the rest of the day. But it took less than an hour and in the end our bathroom was much cleaner so I felt satisfied.

I spent the evening running tests on my DOMs and going to the gym (I decided I wanted to be sure I was really tired tonight!) The gym was packed because everyone is training for the race around the world in Christmas day. Yep, that’s right, a race, all the way around the world! Ha ha! How cool is that? Well, we’ll find out on race day! But as for today, it’s just about the same as Chicago—only -10 F with a windchill of -30. I actually got too warm outside during the DOM Dance!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Silly Parents; The Prince of Monaco; History Lessons

This morning there was no 8 o’clock meeting. No meeting! I also have no work to do today—dom-testing has a break until Monday since we’re so far ahead. So I slept the deep, profound sleep of the truly exhausted and woke up feeling…refreshed!

I went through my (highly shortened) morning ritual, and then called my parents before the satellite went down. It was funny—Mom didn’t believe it was me. You know what else? She hasn’t read my blog. Yep, that’s right, my own parents haven’t been reading! I sent them an e-mail. With a link. All you have to do is click! They couldn’t figure it out. So if anyone is reading this who knows my parents, you have every right to make fun of them. In fact, please do.

After talking with my family, I quickly submitted some jobs to our cluster in Madison, coming in just under the wire before the satellite completely dipped beneath the horizon. Hooray! I might have simulation by the time I get back! (This has been a challenge to me for months.)

Then I went to brunch. Mmmmm brunch. Omelets made to order, hash browns, fresh fruit, apple date and raisin pastries, bacon, sausage, home-made waffles, tasty Wisconsin cheese! What could be better? At lunch I learned something very interesting (the meals are very important here, if you can’t tell, for the sharing of information): the Prince of Monaco—and his entourage—is coming to stay with us! Yep, that’s right, a Prince! Will he pitch a tent outside like the lowly peasant tourists? Maybe it will be one of those fancy tents like the Bedouin people use, with Turkish carpets and all. Will he stay in the berths in the Station like the rest of us? Maybe he will require an entire conference room be appointed with princely trimmings to be used as his royal bedchamber. And what of his entourage? How many people, exactly, does an entourage consist of? Presently the station has 303 people staying here and they’re turning folks away—we’re absolutely at full capacity! Where will we put them? No one seems to know the answers so speculation is rampant. Unfortunately the one thing people do know is his arrival date: January 14. I leave the 8th. I won’t get to see the Prince of Monaco. Or his entourage. Or his princely d├ęcor.

This afternoon I walked around the station taking photos and exploring new places. I found a new book in the library to replace the Mark Twain I’ve lost. (I left it on a windowsill—they have nice big windowsills here—and forgot about it for a day. When I came back it was gone. I went through the library and the game room where most of the books are kept; I checked the lost-and-found; I checked everywhere that seemed likely, but no luck. My Mark Twain has disappeared. Well, hopefully someone is enjoying it!) I found some yarn and knitting needles in the arts-and-crafts room. I discovered a band playing in the coat room. All very interesting. I made a photographic tour of the station which you can view below if you like.

This evening after dinner there was the Sunday Science Talk—8 PM in the galley. It happened to be on the “genealogy” of IceCube—from its first conception—and was given by Gary Hill, a scientist with UW whom some of you may know. This talk included much of the oral history that in physics is so fascinating—and usually completely disregarded. He began at the beginning, with an idea that was born of genius, but also of what seems like complete insanity (though some people would call this vision). In the beginning the idea for a detector like ours was crazy. So crazy, in fact, that they had to sneak into Antarctica to drop little optical modules down the bore holes drilled by geologists taking ice core samples (probably still looking for global cooling in those days). It was all on the sly because they didn’t want to bring it to the funding agencies yet—it was too crazy. Even from the beginning they were talking of a kilometer-cubed detector like IceCube. From the beginning! And yet even just six years ago it still seemed like an impossibility—around that time it took 20 hours to deploy 20 optical sensors in AMANDA-II (the precursor to IceCube), and this was a victory; 6 strings in a season was something to cheer about. This year, we can deploy 60 optical modules in 4.5 hours, and we’ll be deploying at least 16 strings this season (we have 7 down already, and we’re working on drilling the 8th hole at present). We have it down to a science, as they say. Who would have thought this could be possible from the place we started? But the real question is: how come everyone in the field isn’t aware of this history? Shouldn’t we be passing on our epic stories to future generations? We really ought to have lectures like this more often, and that’s the truth.

How cool is that? (-16 degrees Fahrenheit, with a windchill still around -40)


Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Norwegian Traverse and a Shower

I woke up this morning exhausted. Yesterday was strenuous and I didn’t sleep enough. I attended our 8 o’clock meeting, learned from Jens what I had to do to file our weekly report, checked on my dom-tests, found out that there was nothing else I was supposed to be doing, and went back to take a nap (during which I didn’t actually sleep that well). After lunch we finished the dom-testing for this SPAT, put together the analysis spreadsheet, and headed out to disconnect everything. I was better at it this time—it’s nice to be able to tell that you’re learning things! After disconnecting the DOMs, labeling them as having been tested this year, setting aside 4 spares, labeling which string they’re supposed to go on, and picking up after ourselves, we headed back for dinner. After dinner, a few of us had been thinking of walking out to the deployment site. This would have been really neat, but we started having some problems with our drill hose as they pulled the drill out—they had to replace some sections of it. So removing the drill took lots longer than expected, and deployment was postponed until at least 10 o’clock. So instead we walked out to see this Norwegian Traverse which is “in town”. They had invited all the station people out for an open house, and it was a lot neater than I expected. It’s basically like a traveling science station! They have a sonar sensor in the front to tell if they’re coming up on a crevasse, they have a radio antenna which checks for the reflections of the signal off the Antarctic continent beneath them, below the ice…if it reflects really well, it’s probably a lake—a liquid lake!—on the continent which has been insulated from freezing by the ice sheet. They think there are about four lakes at least—each around 10 miles wide by 30 miles long—and they intend to map them. They have ice core drilling equipment so they can do historical climate studies, and they even have a remote controlled airplane which was so cool on its own that I forget what it’s used for! You can see all these things in the photos.

On the way back we went looking for the FEMC. They were having a party where they pour drinks through some of our optically clear ice, which ought to have been photo worthy at least—again, the directions were “Look for all the people, you can’t miss it”. Um….no people. So we walked around, decided it couldn’t possibly have been worth it, and came back to the station.

On returning I went to the gym for the first time since arriving, and then—wonder of wonders—I showered! I’m clean! Clean clean clean! Boy howdy I tell you; those two minutes of hot water were just what the doctor ordered!

How cool is that? (Not cool at all, silly, it was hot water! Blessed, beautiful, bountiful--or not so bountiful--hot water!)


Friday, December 19, 2008

The Importance of Communication; Dancing; a Hero Retires

Today was a doozey of a day. Last night I had asked the people in charge of IceTop if I could help fill the very last IceTop tank of the season. All the rest are done, there’s only one left, so I really wanted to help and see what it’s all about. But this morning at the 8 o’clock meeting it was revealed that the tank might not be filled right away since the doms that were going into the tank needed to be retested. (I’m not sure why—I couldn’t get a clear answer from anybody.) So I agreed to meet Jens at 10 AM to walk out to drill camp and see if they were ready. Or at least that’s what I thought I agreed to—sometimes it’s hard to understand Jens…or rather, sometimes I think he doesn’t understand me! Anyway, come 10 o’clock I’m in the science lab and Jens isn’t there. 10:15 rolls around and I decide I’d better just go out there because he must have meant to meet at the site. So I put on all my layers of gear and ask around to try and figure out where I should be going. (The typical response around here is “You’ll see. There will be people. You’ll see.”) So with these instructions: “Look for the smoke—you’ll see it, then just ask somebody where the tank is that they’re filling.” and a vague wave in the proper direction, I headed out the door.

Fortunately one of the PIs (Helmut?) from the South Pole Telescope (SPT) was heading out the door at the same time. Not having any idea who he was, I asked if he could point me in the proper direction. Since he was also going that general direction we walked together until I had to veer off for our drilling site. It was pretty clear that this was the proper area. There was steam, red shacks, some pollution (it takes no small amount of fuel to drill 2.5 km into the ice!)…but no people. Or rather, no people within asking distance. As I was trudging along, I would see people in the distance, but before I could get to them (I was moving slowly due to the altitude and the extra-big boots) they would take off on their snow mobiles, or walk the other direction, or whatever. So finally I arrived at the actual drill camp. It consists of a couple rows of red trailers, one big blue tent, some other random buildings, and lots of machinery. Still no one. Finally I saw someone going into a building. So I followed him. As I entered, the back door was closing. So I ran out again and looked for him. He was going between some red shacks. So I went between two red shacks a couple of rows down. But then he was going into a different building. It was like a scene from one of these 1960s comedy films with the hallway and the doors and the criminal goes through one door, and the cops enter a different door and then the criminal comes out on the other side, and the cops come out yet another door, and in the end the cops somehow all end up piled in the hallway without the criminal. This went on for about 5 minutes—no joke! And I could HEAR voices! But I never saw anyone, and with all my gear on I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from, so I figured it was just a radio. I walked into most of the buildings, including the DCC—Drill Camp Central—where surely there would be someone. But no: not a soul. Finally I gave up. It was eerie—all I could hear was those weird voices and my breathing (it really feels like one of those sci fi movies where they go to Mars: you’ve got the big heavy boots, the big insulated pants, the huge parka, the hat that covers your entire face, the ski mask that blocks all your peripheral vision, and all you can hear is breathing… breathing… scary breathing!)—and I was getting worn out from all the walking, and the altitude, and trying to catch up with people who were clearly better acclimated than I. So I started trudging back to the station. But finally, someone was there, in the middle of my path—if only I could get there in time! So I started picking up the pace. And they started getting on their snow mobile. So I started running and waving my arms! And they got ready to pull away. But finally the guy on the back saw me and got the other guy to stop! So I asked my question: “Where are the guys working on the IceTop tank?” “Oh, they’re in that big blue tent—we call it the Purple Palace!” Ah, the Purple Palace! The one place I hadn’t looked because who on earth would work in a tent when there’s all those empty heated buildings just sitting there waiting to be worked in? (And who calls a place purple when it's so clearly blue?) Crazy! So I thanked them profusely, caught my breath, and went back. Ugh, how exhausting!

When I got to the Purple Palace, I found Jens, and Rick, and Len. (Rick was the lead for IceTop stuff in the beginning of the season and leaves tomorrow. Len—who arrived with me—is taking over.) Those were the voices I had heard. Ugh! Anyway, I discovered that the doms had yet to be retested. They weren’t going to be filling the tank this morning—they’d have to wait until after noon when Jens and I would be doing the “DOM Dance”. But they showed me how they make the ice optically clear—no bubbles at all!—which was really interesting, and we even got to take the shuttle back to the station. Woo hoo! No more walking for me! Whew! What a morning!

In the end, I tried to explain to Jens that I thought we were meeting in the B2 Science Lab, but he didn’t quite catch it. I let it go. Ah, the joy of poorly communicated information!

At 1, a hearty meal in my stomach, Jens and I went back out to the DOM-testing site. The forklift guys were supposed to come at 1:30 and there was much work to be done before then. We had two sleds—one with the doms we’d just finished testing, and one from the deployment site with palettes and boxes from doms that had been put in the ice already. Since all the newly tested doms had been unhooked already, that sled was ready to go. Our current task was to clear off the sled from the deployment site so that we could put the next set of doms on it. So we tossed all the dom boxes into a pile—no small feat!—and stacked the palettes neatly—also nothing to sneeze at since, as the pile gets higher, the palettes become harder and harder to place.

Having cleared the boxes and palettes, we went around and found the big boxes of doms we had chosen for the next test cycle—there were seven boxes with 8 doms apiece. (Normally we test 64 doms so it would be 8 big boxes with 8 doms apiece, but this time we had three retests, so we hand-picked the last 5 doms and dragged them over by ourselves.) Then all we had to do was wait for the forklift guys.

When they arrived, we showed them where the big DOM boxes were, and they got down to business. Jens and I helped them align the boxes on the sled, and while they were getting the next box we’d remove the big box to reveal the 8 individual DOM boxes underneath. Each of the 8 dom boxes has two handles on the side, and a panel you can bust open to reach the dom cable. This means we can test the doms without removing them from their boxes. So if we test doms that don’t get used this year (a distinct possibility) or even right away, they’re still protected from the elements. (This method, I think, comes from lots of experience doing it the wrong way!)

Once the forklift guys get all the doms on the palette and Jens and I de-box them all, the forklift guy pulls the sled with already-tested doms out of our tent, and backs the new doms in for us to hook up.

At this point, I got to learn how to hook up DOMs. Now this is one of my biggest fears down here—you have to be incredibly careful not to break the connectors. Why? If you break the connector you have to fix it—or have someone else fix it—and that takes time. And even worse, I discovered that none of the dom-testers has broken one this year, so I’d better not ruin it for the rest of us! For each connector, we use two people: one person to put the two sides together, the other person to screw them into place (I don’t have a photo of this yet, but I’ll try to get one next time). Jens showed me how, and then I tried it—I’m really slow! But we finally got everything hooked up, checked to see that they were all communicating with our hub—they were!—and we began our suite of tests (which can be run from the station). This takes about 24 hours total, so tomorrow afternoon we’ll get to unhook again.

This is work that isn’t that difficult when it’s warm. But in the cold, with all the gear, it’s another story. The cables get cold and it’s hard to twist them the proper direction to achieve a good connection. The boxes feel heavier because of the gear. The screw piece gets cold and doesn’t turn easily. Everything is harder down here on the ice.

Tonight, I ate a very large meal. I didn’t feel hungry—I think it’s one of those exhaustion things…you’re so tired you don’t feel hungry. But eating is important. And while I was eating, I learned that some of those tourists I told you about are stranded here. The plane that is supposed to come and get them “needs repaired” according to the company—I’ve heard the company charges them extra for each day they have to stay beyond a certain date, so this happens all the time. But it’s also true that the companies don’t plan for bad weather, so their people almost never have enough food. Plus, we’re not allowed to feed them because the food is US government property (“Don’t feed the tourists” – there ought to be a sign!). Like I [think I] said before—they’re allowed coffee a cookie, and a shower. That’s it. So these poor guys are starving. Granted, they paid $40,000 to starve, but still. I almost think they shouldn’t allow tourism to Antarctica. It’s too easy to take advantage of people because there’s no one to stop them.

After dinner there was a retirement party for someone named Jerry Marty. He was the station manager from the NSF and first came here just out of college in 1969 and wintered over here with his wife in 1974-5, so he's been coming down for almost 40 years. He was a big advocate for scientific research at the South Pole and was basically directly responsible for all of us being able to be here. He also helped design the new station and even helped us set up a feasible schedule for IceCube deployment, which is one of the reasons we’ve managed to stay funded so well—we’re on budget and on time, a rare thing for particle physics. It was a very cool thing to see someone who has dedicated so much of his life to the studying of science in crazy remote locations. (And because of that I’m going to include some photos of his reception that aren’t mine. I do hope you’ll forgive me.) When asked what he would do in his retirement, he said “well, my wife is a school teacher so she’ll be retiring in June, so after that we intend to spend the summer in LA eating good food, drinking wine, going golfing, and spending lots of time with the grandkids. But I don’t think I can extract myself from this business so easily. Sometime next winter, when it starts to get chilly and I get homesick for Antarctica, I intend to start a book about this experience. We don’t have enough documenters of science around, and we don’t have enough people who know enough about science to document it. So that’s what I’m going to do. Because this is a neat place and people deserve to know what happened here.” (Or at least that’s pretty darn close to what he said.)

And how cool is that? (Cool enough to bring more than one grizzled old warrior of science to tears.)


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Deadly Diamox...and Tourists!

Note: I added photos from a few days ago, so go back and check those out if you were waiting for them!

I’m planning to write a bit about the station, but I want to take photos to supplement and I haven’t done it yet. So instead I’m going to tell you about living at almost 10,000 feet.

First off, isn’t Antarctica flat? Why are we at 10,000 feet? Well, you know how we’re sinking these optical modules into the ice a few miles? Well, there’s your answer. There’re a few miles of ice on top of this continent, which may or may not be at sea level to begin with (I think we’re on a plateau, actually, to add to the confusion, but I’m not sure if that’s an ice plateau or a land plateau—I’ll look it up when the satellite comes up!). So we’re living at an altitude which is higher than most of the Rocky Mountains. This means that it’s possible to get altitude sickness, which apparently starts with shortness of breath, dizziness and disorientation, and culminates in unstoppable vomiting at which point they medically evacuate (med evac) you back to McMurdo for a few days. But even without altitude sickness, you’re bound to have shortness of breath. Combine that with the fact that it’s incredibly dry here (it’s a desert, after all, and the coldness causes all the moisture in the air to freeze and fall to the ground) and you have a really annoying cycle—you can’t breathe, and when you do your throat completely dries out, making it even harder to breathe. This is especially difficult when lying down. So last night I slept, but not too well. Every time I woke up I felt like I was almost choking because it was so dry. So I would soak a towel in water and hang it from the end of my bed. Which worked great for about an hour, and then the towel would be bone dry and I’d have to wet it through again. But my symptoms today have been pretty mild, mostly due to not sleeping well for three nights running. This morning I was a bit disoriented, but I took a 2 hour nap after our 8 o’clock meeting and that fixed all that ailed me. Except the side effects of Diamox.

“What is Diamox?” you ask. Well, Diamox is this lovely drug that prevents the symptoms of altitude sickness. But it also causes strange side effects, like tingling in your extremities (as if, for example, your foot’s asleep and can’t quite wake up, so you’re on pins and needles for an excruciatingly long time). It also has the propensity to cause you to use the facilities on a very regular basis. This is amplified by the fact that you’re supposed to drink lots and lots of water to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness (and because it's just plain dry down here). For me the most annoying part has been the tingling. My foot went numb in the middle of walking down the hall the morning I left McMurdo. This is annoying, especially when in the middle of taking a step. It goes away after a while, but it comes back in strange ways. For example, sometimes my heel will go numb, or my big toe, or the ball of my foot…but not the rest of it. And this evening my cheeks started tingling. In fact, they’re still tingling mildly. It’s a really strange feeling! I’d been told (but forgot) that taking half doses provides relief from the symptoms of altitude sickness while eliminating most of the side effects. I switched to half doses this morning, but it’s still bothering me. If it doesn’t stop by tomorrow, I’m going to call it quits on this Diamox business. People say it’s totally worth it—people who have never taken it before and decided to take it this year. They say it helps with sleeping. But I ask you this: is waking up every hour to use the facilities the kind of help with sleeping that I need? We’ll see.

So what else did I do today besides have my feet go numb and take a nap? Well, at 8 AM every morning the IceCube people have a meeting in our little section of the Science Lab—also called B2. It is at this time that we give updates about drilling, deploying, dom-testing, IceTop tank filling, and anything else that might be important (such as, in my case, the fact that I carried down a bag full of parts but I didn’t know which people matched the names I’d been given to hand them off to.)

After the meeting I slept and ate lunch—the soup here is remarkably good, and I dearly love soup, so I’m pretty happy with the meals so far. After lunch I met with Jens—he’s the guy I’m going to be taking over dom-testing from. We discussed the status of the latest spat of tests (actually, we even label them as SPATs—right now we’re on SPAT 12…each spat has 64 doms in it, and each string in the ice takes 60 doms, so if all doms in each SPAT pass our tests we can lay aside 4 as back-ups for deployment). SPAT 12 was nearly done, so we started the last test, put all our results into a spreadsheet, and went out to de-connect all of the doms. After unhooking SPAT 12, we chose boxes of doms for SPAT 13, which we will hook up tomorrow. (I will explain more about all this later, but I want to take photos of a cycle all the way through to give you a good idea of how it works, since this will be my main project down here.) I was really happy to go out and see some things and do something useful—yesterday and this morning I felt a bit listless because everyone else here is working really hard, but you’re told to do nothing the first day or so because of the altitude issues.

After finishing up the SPAT Jens was going over to help deploy—I had been told (ordered!) not to help, but I thought I might hike over there and take a look-see. But the drill-camp (where they’re deploying) is on the other side of the station from the domtesting-site, and by the time we were passing the station, my eyelashes were frozen, the little whisps of hair sticking out from under my hat were frozen, my sunglasses had steamed up and then they froze in a manner that left me without vision completely, and (worst of all) my cheeks were starting to become disturbingly red. So I turned aside and came back into the station. But now I know better—tomorrow I’ll wear ski goggles instead of sunglasses which will cover my face better and fog up less.

After dinner, I ran into a woman from the Exploratorium in San Francisco (if you haven’t heard of the Exploratorium, google it—it’s a really cool science museum…even their website is fun). They just came in this afternoon and are working with one of the guys I work for. They leave again on Saturday (so they’re only here for one full day). She is the video-camera person (named Lisa) and was telling me about all the trouble they’ve had filming down here already today: their tripod won’t stay up because it’s too cold and the metal keeps contracting; the gloves—even just the liners—are too bulky to use with the camera, but without them your fingers freeze off; the camera itself has to be rated to extremely cold temperatures, so I’m not sure what they had to do about that (if you take photos outside and come back into the station, all the moisture—all what moisture!?—condenses inside immediately, which can cause severe damage to the camera). So it was interesting to talk to her for a few minutes—I’m hoping I’ll get to talk with her a little more because the Exploratorium offers one post-doctoral fellowship each year, and I was thinking of applying…

Another interesting tidbit—the South Pole has tourists (and a gift shop). Many of you know this. Most of the tourists get dropped off at the 1 degree latitude line and then ski the rest of the way in. Since this is purely a scientific research facility, they are allowed only one shower, cookies, coffee, and that’s it. They have to camp outside. (Yikes!) Today, though, we had some interesting tourists. We had some Canadians who had skied all the way from the coast—that takes, like, 3 months! We had a Finnish guy who had skied all the way in as well, but he broke two ribs at the 1 degree line, and had skied the rest of the way in with broken ribs! Unbelievable! Those who ski in usually catch a flight back, but I learned today that a year or so ago there was a British group (apparently they were basically the British equivalent of Navy Seals) who skied in, and then para-skied out (you know, skiing behind these parachute-like things that catch the wind—think parasailing). Wow! And last but not least, today two twin-otter planes came in and landed right here filled with…guess who? Japanese tourists. Japanese tourists—I knew they were everywhere, but seriously, the South Pole? Amazing! Apparently they were walking around the station taking photos of absolutely everything and even asked the one Japanese scientist they found working here for his autograph. You have to love Japanese tourists—they’re as reliable as the Energizer bunny!

And how cool is that? -15 Fahrenheit with a wind-chill down around -40. Yep, that’s right, -40, where the Centigrade and Fahrenheit scales meet!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Great Nothingness

Before I went to bed last night I discovered the horrible thing about being disorganized: I had hastily packed my toothbrush, toothpaste, and all my shower things into my boomerang bag, which I had already rechecked without realizing my mistake. This was tragic! I had to borrow someone else’s toothpaste and brush my teeth with my finger before I went to bed. All night I barely slept because I was worried about how I would shower in the morning, and that my hair wouldn’t dry before I had to go outside and get on the plane (which would make it freeze). I’m only allowed 2 showers a week at the Pole at 2 minutes apiece so this shower was going to be my last nice one in a really long time! When I woke up from my troubled sleep (before my alarm clock rang) I decided to just use someone else’s shampoo in the bathroom. I felt really bad, but what was I to do? And I was still worried about my hair drying in time. However, after showering I discovered that our flight had been delayed by an hour. So I went back to sleep, my hair dried, I ate some breakfast, and everything worked out just fine (except for being extraordinarily tired after having barely slept in two nights running).

This time when we boarded the bus it was much smaller since not many of us were continuing on to Pole—maybe 15 of the 45 of us on the previous flight. It drove us to a different airfield, called Willy Field, which is on the other side of Scott Base from McMurdo. (Scott Base is the Kiwi base just next to the US base—much smaller than ours, but their gear was much nicer—it’s the orange stuff in the photos from yesterday.)

At Willy Field we had to wait for our plane to be ready (again) for about 20 minutes, so we were allowed to get out and take photos and stretch our legs before being strapped down again. This plane was also a C130 Hercules, but it was much cooler than the last one: this one had jump seats, and was on skis (unfortunately the toilet was not as well equipped for women…). The pilots of this aircraft were much friendlier than the last ones. They woke me up when we came to the most beautiful views and let me come up to the cockpit. They didn’t mind me checking out the back of the plane with all the cargo and palettes. And when I went to the cockpit, they did a nice job pointing out the best features. For example we passed over the biggest glacier in the world (or at least the pilot thought it was). (I’m planning to look it up, but the satellite is down now.)

About 15 minutes early, we started the landing process, and next thing we knew we had landed in the midst of Amundsen Scott South Pole Station with barely a bump--the smooth snow-ski landing was a big surprise! Before we could see anything else (there were only 4 windows on this flight, too) they had lowered the cargo hatch, so we could see the snow we’d kicked up behind us as well as the big forklift coming up to remove our luggage and cargo. We donned our ECW gear, which we all knew instinctively wouldn’t be quite sufficient (especially for those who were disorganized like me and put important things in the checked boomerang bag), and disembarked, making sure to go right (not left into the propeller). Now, you have to understand that we’re reaching the peak of the summer—it’s not that cold here, maybe only -15F. But I tell you, -15F and windy like this is enough to freeze your nose off. I immediately covered up every inch I could, and felt the uncovered bits going numb. We were greeted by a bunch of IceCube people and encouraged to hop on the mass-transit snowmobile to traverse the last 50 meters before we all froze. I do apologize, but I have no photos of those moments as I was worried my fingers really would freeze off this time (and if not my fingers, then certainly my camera)!

At this point, I realized that I felt like I was on the moon. There is nothing here but the station—no features, nothing. It’s one great expanse of nothingness—eerie, sterile white, as far as the eye can see.

As the snow machine started moving, I held up my fur hood and turned my face away from the wind, catching one last glimpse of our plane. The propellers were still turning. And then I remembered that planes can’t stop their engines at the Pole. Can you guess why? If they stop they freeze up and can’t start again (at least not without a great deal of assistance).

As soon as we made it inside the station (I decided it looks very sci-fi, but that could be a simple reflection of the feeling that I was on the moon) we were given room assignments and the new people sat through yet another orientation. I don’t really remember what this one was about as it was so similar to the others, but one interesting piece of news I picked up is that with our group of incomers the station is now holding more people than it ever held before. (We have 253-ish—40-some of those are IceCube people.) We then dropped our carry-on things and our big warm gear in our rooms and went for lunch, which was surprisingly tasty. After lunch, I unpacked my carry on bag, collected and unpacked my checked bags, found out where I’m supposed to be working, and explored the entire station before eating dinner and turning in.

By the way, my room is in the main station, not the summer camp Jamesways. This is great news and means that I’ll never have to tell you why I needed to pack a funnel!

Well, I need to stop writing because we just got an announcement that we need to shut off all electricity if possible because otherwise we’re going to have a power outage. How cool is that? Cool enough to freeze your nose off if you’re not careful!


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I spy…Antarctica!

This morning was entirely different from yesterday. In the sense that I arose at 5, it was the same. However, I didn’t sleep well last night for fear of missing my flight and for wondering if it would be canceled. I was so tired that I was much less organized than I had been yesterday, a fact which would come back to haunt me later.

I received no 6AM knock at my door, so downstairs I went to meet with all the others who would be traveling today. Our shuttle arrived, packed us in, and off we went, back to the CDC. On arrival, we quickly moved things around as necessary (from carry to check, check to carry), put on all our gear (in 70-degree heat!) and weighed ourselves and our luggage to ensure the plane wouldn’t be too heavy. During this process, I discovered that my carry bag didn’t quite fit into the little box that was the size delimiter. So I quickly tried to remove some things (In hindsight the two-days worth of packed breakfast’s from the hotel would have been a good choice). But I felt rushed, and someone with more experience than I happened to walk by and said, “Why not just take the boomerang bag?” So I stuffed a bunch of stuff in my boomerang bag without thinking too much about it. It worked well from the perspective of time and comfort—my carry was small and I was ready to go in plenty of time. We had half an hour then for breakfast or just standing around talking outside, where we would see our last patch of green growing things for quite a while.

Finally, at 8:10 we had our orientation video and boarded a bus. (The video basically described the importance of being safe, looking where you’re going, recycling carefully, and not wasting energy.) The bus was crowded, as we Americans were around 25, and we were joined by a group of 20 Kiwis. The bus drove us to the plane, which wasn’t quite ready. But without too much delay we were boarding—it was a C130 run by the South African military. It had passenger seats, as you’ll see in the photos below, and a very tiny bath”room” (actually a toilet stool surrounded by a curtain—the feet of the person sitting next to the toilet trespassed into the toilet space, so you had to trip to the toilet)! We arranged our gear, took off our parkas, and settled in for our 8 hour flight to McMurdo. The plane itself was really neat, but other than that, it wasn’t so different from any other flight—they even did the here-are-all-the-exit-doors-and-this-is-how-you-fasten-your-seat-belt thing. There were only about 4 windows for us—I was sitting just behind one which was nice. Ear plugs were also a necessity for this flight—they’re not required, but I think you’d go deaf without them since the propellers are so loud! The ear plugs made conversation nearly impossible (though some of the Kiwis had brought a mini etch-a-sketch for writing notes and playing I Spy which provided some amusement), so I got out my next book and started reading, only to fall asleep within minutes of reaching altitude.

After about 2 hours I realized that the difference between this flight and a commercial flight is that the seats are rock hard! So I stood up and walked around for a bit. I repeated this ritual every hour or so after that, which was well-rewarded: I happened to catch the sea-ice as well as the snow-covered mountains. The further we traveled the more excited I became (this was also helped by the fact that I was sleeping in my seat). Finally, we landed. We walked out of the plane with the full knowledge that at McMurdo it was around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. So we thought it wouldn’t be that cold. Big mistake! I took photos of Mt. Erebus, the plane, Ivan the Terrabus, and some other things, but within about 1 minute my hands went entirely numb and I had to put on my gloves and get on the bus. In spite of the 30 degree temperature at McMurdo, we weren’t on the base—we were in the midst of a frozen channel between the island--home to Mt. Erebus and McMurdo--and the mainland. The wind was whipping right along through that channel and literally took my breath away! I’ve never been so concerned that I had frostbite in my life...and can you imagine what people would say if I managed to get frostbite within the first minute of being on Antarctica? Ridiculous! So I took care to warm up my hands and after about an hour all the redness had finally faded and the numbness had full retreated, so I could be that they would be just fine. Whew—horror scenario avoided! This is how I learned that 30 degrees Fahrenheit in Antarctica is not quite the same as 30 degrees Fahrenheit in Madison.

Ivan the Terrabus drove us through the frozen ice field and to McMurdo. When we disembarked, those of us with the US Antarctic Program were pointed toward the Chalet (the NSF building). Here we received room assignments (some for the night, like me, and some for the next few weeks or months), we were accosted about the importance of taking Diamox (the drug for altitude sickness), we were critically questioned about our travel plans following our “redeployment” (a word which makes no sense—they use it to mean what I would call removal, or when we go back to New Zealand, but to me it sounds like we should be re-deploying to Antarctica), and they showed us another video about recycling, computer safety, workplace hazards, etc. Finally they let us go find our rooms, get our linens, and get some food (we were all starving)!

After dinner we had to do the “bag drag” which is when we go to get our checked bags and theoretically drag them down to the station. Everyone makes it sound like a horrible chore, but it’s really not that far. Plus, we didn’t actually have to drag—we just had to retag our bags and recheck them for our flight in the morning. It’s always nice to discover that things you’re dreading are not nearly as bad as expected.

After the bag drag I walked thorough the base a little bit with one of the IceCube guys who has been around a long time. We walked out to Scott’s hut and beyond, and saw some seals climbing out of the water, which is currently melting. McMurdo is not very pretty. The atmosphere is fun: I have three roommates for the night, one of whom leaves at 3AM and they all seemed quite nice in the approximately 5 minutes I spoke with them. But the station itself is dusty with volcanic grit (from Mt. Erebus), and it’s rocky—there’s snow all around, but not on the base (at least, not at this time of year). But they have almost all the amenities of home, including the ability to call home from a number that looks like it’s in Colorado (as long as you have a calling card with an 800 number).

Oh, and did you know that the entire continent of Antarctica has round-the-clock sunlight? I wasn’t sure if on the edge it would get dark for a short time, but now I know—it’s a bit strange to go to bed when the sun is at the same height it was at mid-afternoon! (At this time of year the sun floats around the zenith at about 30 degrees above the horizon.)

How cool is that? Cold enough to freeze your hand clear through in (just over) 1 minute!


Monday, December 15, 2008

In the Eye...

Last night I organized all my things and said goodbye to my room. I had enjoyed my little space, so I took a few photos to commemorate the moment. You can see them below.

However, it seems it was not good bye after all. I awoke this morning at 5. Our shuttle was coming shortly after 6 to collect us for the flight to McMurdo. So I showered, got dressed and ready, reorganized everything in my bags, and checked my e-mail one last time. I was just putting on my shoes to walk out of the room with my carry on bags, when I received a knock at the door. I thought (in my tiredness) that perhaps they were knocking just to be sure everyone was awake. They are very hospitable here, so it was not a crazy idea. But no, "Go back to bed!" said the shortish man in a blue bath robe. I gave him a stare of utter incomprehension. "Your flight's delayed 24 hours. Go back to bed." I still didn't understand. So he showed me the note he'd written, which said "Flight delayed 24 hours." Somehow the writing made a difference and I realized what had happened: weather. So I thanked the man, changed my clothes, and thought about sleeping. But I was too geared up--I knew that sleep wouldn't come right away, so I wrote some e-mails instead. And then I tried to sleep for an hour or so before breakfast. But I'd had an early dinner last night and my stomach was complaining about its lack of sustenance, completely preventing me from sleeping. So at 7:15 I went down to breakfast early, hoping they'd have some food to eat so I could go to sleep.

Breakfast was strange--not the food, but the company. I ended up sitting with three IceCube people I'd never met. I'm a 6th year graduate student. One would think I'd have met everybody by now, but for a variety of reasons that is clearly not the case. So it was a tiny bit awkward. But they were all so friendly, and I was so famished that I ended up sitting and eating and talking for almost 2 hours!

Then, I thought, surely I would be able to sleep. But I went up to my room, and it was cold (it was cold and rainy outside, and all my clothes for cold and rainy are at the CDC, so there was no way I was going out in that weather!) So I turned up the heat and thought I'd just read a while until the room was warmed up. About 5 hours later, I finished my book, and felt refreshed. The sun was out, the air was clean and fresh, and I'd laid in my pajamas in bed for most of the day. How wonderful!

Then, since the weather was nice, I went out for a walk. I roamed around a bit, revelling in my favorite scent of spring--lilacs just starting to bloom! I breathed the freshness of the air like it was some forbidden fruit, and realized that this is the eye of the storm, a bit of springtime in the bleak midwinter, and I'd better appreciate this day--this unexpected day of peace. So I rambled through town drinking in the sweetness of the moment until I came upon the botanic gardens. I walked in and through them all, discovering New Zealand through it's foliage on the way. It has been mentioned that New Zealand is something like California. I think this might be true. All through town are these neo-gothic buildings (which you've seen in my photos from two days ago) next to modern buildings. These neo-gothic buildings were built by Anglican priests, come to convert the natives and sustain their flock of Englishmen. So in that sense, they might be compared to the Spanish mission buildings in California. Another similarity is in the foliage. It is strange to me to see yucca plants next to palm trees mixed with pine trees surrounded by oak trees. These types of plants clash for me, but I think they all exist in California, as well. But for my part, I find the combination charmingly different.

After roaming and rambling for a good few hours, I found myself a place to eat dinner, outside, in the midst of one of these neo-gothic structures. The food was immensely good (and included lamb, of course) and though I meant to read while I ate, I found my eyes drawn up to the sky instead.

Now, I've mentioned already (in the photo captions from a few days back) about the sun being to my back as I walked south--which is strange enough. But today as I watched the sky, a group of fluffy white clouds came marching across the land from west to east, high in the atmosphere traveling quickly. But next thing I knew, there was a second set of clouds, traveling in the opposite direction, a bit lower in the atmosphere, and moving even more quickly. This was disturbing to me--the clouds were incredibly dark and I couldn't see how these two sets could pass each other by without incident. But no one else seemed concerned, so I just kept one eye on my food and the other on the sky, watching, waiting for some sort of huge storm right above where I sat, at the confluence of the two currents. But alas, nasty as they looked, the two banks of clouds must really have been on two separate layers and in the end they peacefully passed each other by. But boy howdy! I tell you I have never seen clouds like that without a tornado or wind storm or something awful right on it's heels. I guess the weather just arrives faster here. And so my lovely day was brought to a close, and I'm almost hoping for the same tomorrow! It's been too long since I took that much time for myself, with no agenda, no important things to be done hanging over my head. It was very relaxing.

Well,I mustn't tarry--I never got that nap I needed, and I'll arise at 5 once more tomorrow. I'm not sure if you should hope for the flight, or hope there's no flight, but I guess good luck will serve me nicely either way, so maybe you should hope for that.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Gearing Up!

Today was clothing day...the day we are assigned a bunch of extreme cold weather (ECW) gear and try it on to make sure it fits. We were to meet our shuttle around noon, so I woke up in time to catch the end of breakfast at 8:30 and, to avoid looking like a complete fool at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC), I organized my things in bags like so:

(1) Things I'll need in the next few days (to stay in my hotel room)
(2) Things I'll want in McMurdo (for my carry on bag)
(3) Things I'll want at the South Pole (for my checked bag)
(4) Things I don't want to see until I return to Christchurch (they'll store it for me until I get back to the CDC).

Finally, though convinced that I'd over packed in category #3, I hauled all my stuff (except that I'd packed in category #1) downstairs with everyone else to wait for the shuttle.

The 9 of us staying at the Windsor had a 20 minute ride to the CDC. When we arrived, we were directed toward the women's or men's locker rooms where we found two big orange bags with our names on them packed with ECW gear in sizes we had requested ahead of time (based on measurements and blind guesses). Before we could try anything on we were called back out to the entryway for an orientation talk/video during which we learned (in rapid succession) exactly what we needed to wear on the plane, how many of each kind of bag we were allowed, what each bag was for, what color tag to put on each particular bag, how to trade in clothing, what things we can request more of, how we're going to check in tomorrow...you get the idea. Mostly it went by too quickly to remember. Fortunately, the lady who works there--Marlene--is very helpful and answered a lot of my questions afterward when I couldn't remember what was going on. (I was lucky to have the general idea down already, thanks to the kind advice from friends in Madison.)

The most important part of the orientation was that we're allowed three bags (and they can be the orange ones or a bag of your choosing):

(1) A check in bag (or "chicken" if you're a kiwi), which we "will get back in McMurdo...but maybe not." (What are you supposed to do with that kind of information?)
(2) A boomerang bag, which is made available to us should we "boomerang", or fly out, nearly reach McMurdo, and then have to turn around due to weather. (The idea is to put stuff for Christchurch in this bag, but since I'm leaving an entirely separate bag of stuff for Christchurch, that doesn't really make sense.)
(3) A hand carry bag, which must satisfy a size requirement. (This is the only one you definitely have access to in McMurdo, but they might have to batten it down on the airplane, so I'd been cautioned to be sure my laptop is completely cushioned.)

Once all of our questions were answered, we were shooed back into our changing rooms to try everything on. After swapping out lots of stuff and returning lots of other stuff (like a pair of nasty old blue fleece sweatpants that were too tight in the ankles and too big in the bum) I tried to pack it all in the proper bags (again 100% sure I'd have to repack everything). No problem! I fit everything I needed into my check-in bag or my carry on bag (which might even fit the size requirement!) . I didn't even need the boomerang bag, which is a good thing because I already have that extra bag of work stuff to lug around.

The whole episode took about 3 hours. I was the last one finished packing, but the shuttle hadn't arrived yet, so I was successful in my goal of not looking like a complete fool, and I even managed to get them to let me take photos of the stock room (which I thought was cool--for all the photos, you can click on the photo of clothing below--and again, remember to hover your mouse over the photos to get the full text of the captions!).

We finished out the day by grabbing a bite to eat and some ginger beer (which was quite good!) at the Dux Delux, a popular restaurant near my hotel. Overall, an entirely victorious day! How cool is that? (-14 and snowing...again!)


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christchurch Ho!

I’ve been lucky in my travels--thus far everything has gone according to plan. I managed to sleep a bit on the plane between LA and Auckland. I met some people also going to the South Pole, others who are just staying in McMurdo, and still others who are going to “remote locations” that are known only by a longitude and latitude. I remembered that petting the cute flop-eared puppies in the Auckland airport is a bad idea (they’re the drug dogs!). None of my bags were lost—most fortunately the bag with the electronics for IceCube (without which there could be severe delays…or so I’m told). I made it to my hotel, took a shower, walked around Christchurch collecting the things I had forgotten and taking in the local flavor, got some lunch, and overall had a very successful day! So I thought I’d share with you some photos from today: just click on the photo below to see the picasa album. I wanted to incorporate the photos in this entry, but the internet here is too slow to figure out how, so I opted for writing a lot in the captions. Hot tip: hover over the photo with your mouse and you'll get the full caption. Ha ha, I now have photos on my blog! How cool is that? (-18 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing.)

Adventures in Physicsland

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Final Destination: South Pole Station

Welp, it’s here…D-Day (D for Departure, not for Death). All my pre-tests have been taken. All my forms are filled out, or printed out, or thrown out. The last items have been purchased (baby powder and a funnel—I’ll tell you what they’re for when I have to use them). The last Christmas gifts have been ordered (and I even received my cousins gift—what a nice surprise!). The last requests for baby penguins have been received, noted, and will be considered. The bags have been packed, repacked, and packed again—three checked pieces (the third for work gear)! I remembered to bring my chocolate and my towel (I feel like I’m in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). So am I excited? Am I nervous? Hmmm…I’m excited. But mostly I’m really tired: I've got these poor little neurons who are now so used to firing that they don't know how to quit. Each one has a different question--what should I do with my analysis? what did I forget? did I e-mail people? what will I say on my blog? did I pack right? how on earth did I score this awesome exit-row aisle seat? what if I packed too much? what about too little? which is worse? do I need flip flops? (I think you get the point.)

Everyone’s been asking about my itinerary, and the truth is that I can only provide you with an outline as I myself don’t know all the details. That’s what the blog is for, right? I’ll update you when I figure it out!

So here’s the basic story for the next few days. Today (Dec 11th 2008) after a very hectic morning, a great deal of help from my mother and Tim Tharp, and a lovely noon phone call from my brother in Geneva, I left Chicago at 3PM. (I’m en route to LA as I write, though who knows when I’ll actually be able to post). I arrive around 5:30 PM LA time and depart for Auckland, NZ, around 8PM. That’s 8PM Thursday evening. This flight lasts 13+ hours. I arrive at 6:25AM on Saturday, New Zealand time. (Friday is sacrificed to the time gods—or the International Date Line—in return for a 48 hour day on the return trip.) I then have to uncheck my bags, go the 20 feet through customs (where I’m supposed to give them a fancy schmancy letter saying I’m a US government employee and they have to let me in—pretty cool!), and recheck it all. Fortunately I have a long layover before I depart at 9AM. I arrive in Christchurch at 10:20AM. Once I claim my bags, I’m supposed to follow the blue penguin feet outside the door and down a few blocks to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC). I don’t get my Extremely Cold Weather (ECW) gear until Sunday, but if I stop by the CDC when I arrive I can drop off all the equipment I’m lugging around that isn’t mine. Finally, when all this is done, I can go happily to my hotel (the Windsor B&B) via shuttle, shower and find a place to eat lunch. I’m told not to go to bed until 9PM or so. So that will make it…let’s see…1AM on Saturday at home in Chicago, which is about 40 hours from when I woke up in Chicago this morning. Yikes! I sure hope I can sleep on the next plane!

So….wasn’t I going to the Pole? Yes, indeed. On Monday, after two nights in Christchurch, I board a military plane to McMurdo (MCM), the base on the shore of Antarctica directly across the ocean from Christchurch. I stay there one night and finally arrive at my final destination, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (NPX) on Tuesday…if the weather’s good. If not, we try again. And again. Until it works. And how cool is that? (Not so cool actually—only about -14 degrees Fahrenheit today, with a wind-chill around -40.)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Bondian Moment

(I wrote this blog entry before leaving for the Pole but somehow forgot to copy it from my desktop computer. So I'm posting it after the fact, but the date is correct :) )

Have you ever felt like James Bond--flying around the world, shooting people up with all kinds of cool gadgets whose user manuals you've never read? Yeah, me either. I've traveled more than most in my 27 years—soon I will have seen all the continents save Africa and South America—but I've never felt like a spy. That is, not until earlier this week. And I have to say, it was definitely the drugs...

No, not that kind of drugs! Here, let me explain.

I have this list of things I'm hoping to finish before I leave. It is long and unreasonable (for example, I have "Finish Analysis" on my list...it might as well say "Write Thesis"). These unattainable expectations are starting to pile up and make me feel a bit scattered and frazzled. But one of these things happened to be within reach: "Go to Doctor." There, that's easy enough! So I did. I went to the doctor and I managed to convince her to write me a bunch of prescriptions to take to the Pole. (I have those irritating sinus problems that many of you may remember--you know, surgery blah blah.) So I left and went to the pharmacy where she had called them in. After being given the pager and waiting the obligatory 20 minutes—which I spent perusing the ever-present fashion magazine complete with dead foxes draped “alluringly” around the emaciated shoulders of undernourished supermodels—the pager buzzed. With relief I put aside my magazine and was greeted at the counter by a knowledgeable-looking elderly chap:

"Mizz Andeen?"

I nodded.

"Let’s see, we have a number of prescriptions for you. Some of these you’ve had before and others not. Here, this one you ought to be familiar with." He pulls out the amoxicillin. "Three times a day, with or without food—as you like,” he smiles, “until it's gone—that’s very important: if you get sick you
must take them all. Hopefully it won't be necessary."

"Ah, yes, the nasal spray. Indeed, I think this particular brand might be new to you..." and he extolled the virtues of the new one as compared with the previous generation.

When he pulled out something brand new he gave me a long verbal explanation, a physical demonstration, and then told me in no uncertain terms to carefully read the in-depth packet from the pharmaceutical company before I actually touched it. (It was face cream!)

And that’s when I learned that my pharmacist is Q. (Does that mean that Albrecht is actually Judy Dench?) I wished I had a way to dramatically burn up the instructions right in front of him, Bond style, but alas being a non-smoker occasionally has its drawbacks.

By the time I left I was feeling very well-equipped, not to mention pretty cool. (And I must add that any pharmacist who can somehow make you feel like James Bond when you’re clearly some invalid freak on lots of meds is a pharmacist worth going back for.) How cool exactly? -23 degrees Fahrenheit.