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!

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