Sunday, January 4, 2009

Explorations around Town and other stories

The few days after New Year’s and before Jens was leaving I was trying to convince him to help me get as much DOM-testing done, so that the new guy wouldn’t have to do it on his own. We were working at a breakneck pace. We also helped one morning with deployment, but it was only for an hour. My total deployment has only been 14 DOMs over two strings. Not very much, but enough to get a feel for what’s going on.

But on the side, Jens really wanted to see a few things before he left. So in return for him helping me with the DOMs, I went exploring with him. We saw three main things: the clean air sector and ARO (the Atmospheric Research Organization), the old dome, and the Satellite Station at the end of the Spresso Road.

At ARO we got a tour from Mark, their winter over. As you might have guessed, these are the people who do the atmospheric research. They are positioned with respect to the station so that they are the first to have access to the air blowing all the way across the continent. For this reason, they have nearly constant access to the cleanest air on Earth (since there are no pollutants in Antarctica). These are the people who discovered the ozone hole above Antarctica (which is worst in October), and who are doing a lot of the pollutant studies that people like Al Gore then go around the world presenting. And guess what? They are still running on computers from the 1990s. I would say that’s kind of ridiculous, but that would be too much of an understatement.

The old dome is the previous station at the South Pole. Now, I have to be specific and say “the previous station” instead of “the old station” because there was a station before the dome. The Dome is where anyone who came down before 2004 lived and worked. All the winterovers for ~20 years stayed inside the dome. Due to the accumulation of snow from the wind blowing across the Antarctic Plane (this is that same wind that brings the clean air to the ARO) the dome is nearly covered now, and in a few years will be entirely inaccessible. But for now, tunnels from the Dome still lead to the new station, and those tunnels are the coldest place here at the Pole at a constant -70 degrees. The old Dome is presently used only for storing things like food and cleaning supplies. Also, it seems incredibly small. I don’t understand how there was enough space for everything! I’ll have to ask some former winter-overs when I get back.

The Satellite station was really just an oddly shaped building far out at the end of the Spresso Road. (I don’t know why they call it the Spresso road, by the way…there’s no espresso.) The Spresso Road goes straight out from the station and is actually a pathway between boxes and boxes and boxes of…stuff. The boxes are labeled things like “Mary’s” and “Alexander’s” and “Detergent”. There are also old mattresses there. And washing machines from the 1970s. And food…a whole lot of food. How old are these things? And to whom do they belong? They look as though they’ve been here for 20 years. It brought to mind the beginning of the movie Wall-e. Boxes and boxes and boxes. And forklifts. And complete silence—only the wind, whistling around the boxes. It was one of those days that is completely white—the clouds were low-hanging, white, and indistinguishable from the snow and, although the clouds provide extra insulation and make the day warmer, it feels cold on these days. And creepy. You completely lose your sense of scale, for some reason. Distances are impossible to judge. It makes me feel somehow claustrophobic. Jens and I both became very silent, and by the time we reached the satellite station I felt thoroughly unnerved. At the satellite station we did not get a tour, and we only managed to exchange about 2 words with a random guy who happened to walk out of one building and into another. He was not wearing gear and clearly wanted to get inside as soon as possible. Without us. So we took some photos, made our way back through the graveyard of things, and went inside to drink hot chocolate.

After that I went to the salsa dancing class—that’s always a good way to cheer up!

Here are some anecdotes that haven’t fit elsewhere. I thought they were interesting so I figured I’d better toss ‘em in!

One of these nights I was woken at 7AM (my normal rising time is 7:30) by a fire alarm! There was the loud blaring and announcements throughout the station to make your way to the galley. I had heard there was to be a drill sometime soon, but it woke me up, so I was completely alarmed. I tossed on my parka and my blue FDX boots over my pyjamas and started going to the galley. Around this time I noticed that other people were not in so much of a hurry. They were taking time to wash their faces, brush their teeth, use the toilet, etc, etc. When I got to the galley, I was the only one in my parka! It turns out the fire drills at the South Pole are not quite like in high school where everyone goes outside and waits for the all clear signal. No, we go to the galley and eat breakfast. Apparently there is no risk of being sent outside so no one even prepares for it. Clearly the joke was on me. I sat down at the IceCube table to general laughter and fun-poking and felt really stupid. But seriously—doesn’t it make sense that you might want your parka if there’s a fire? Ugh.

Also during these few days I was finally beat, fair and square, by my Belgian friend Freija. She knows the word menhir. Do you know the word menhir? I do (now). But I didn’t feel so bad because it was a really lovely board—my favorite part of scrabble is trying to fit the pieces together cleverly, not necessarily trying to make the most compliated words.

One night I was eating dinner in the galley and discovered that Gary Freeman, the guy who helps out with directing the forklift for the DOM-dance, used to be a winter-over station manager at one of the other stations. Luckily I had the presence of mind to realize that winter-overs go a little crazy over the winter, unable to leave the dark and the cold, so I asked him what his scariest experience was. He said that one night he woke up to the fire alarm going off. Now, when the fire alarm goes off, everyone is supposed to gather in the galley, so he rushed down there, noting on the way the emptiness of the halls. When he reached the galley, he realized why the halls were bare—everyone was already in the galley. And they were all paying rapt attention to the kitchen where two of the men were facing off, covered in blood. One was holding a butcher’s knife, the other the fire axe (which is why the alarm had gone off). I asked Gary what he did, and he said “Well I jumped right between ‘em of course, before they could kill each other!” (Does anyone else see the problem with that? ) He wrestled away the axe and the knife and locked the guys in their rooms to cool off. (As for the blood, I guess the medic took care of their wounds, but I forgot to ask.) So. Now you know what can happen in a winter on the ice. Oh, and what was the cause? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

Speaking of winter-overs, I asked our winter-over Erik Verhagen how he decided to apply for the position. He definitely did not give me the answer I expected. He was working at CERN as a graduate student. As he was soon to be graduating he was looking for something to do next. He set his sights on a telescope somewhere in the Andes, applied for the position--for which he was well qualified--and they said “I’m sorry, we can’t take you as you have no experience working in an extreme environment.” He was really bummed, but there was nothing he could do so he started asking around about other opportunities. One day a friend of his pointed a neutrino physicist to his office. This neutrino physicist tried to recruit Erik to neutrinos, and Erik ended up telling him the story about this telescope in the Andes he wanted to work on. So this neutrino guy said “I may have a solution for you!” and pointed him to the IceCube winter-over page. On a lark Erik applied, thinking he would never get the job so what harm could it do. Well, surprise, surprise, he got it. As he was telling me this story, he then said that he told his Dad and his Dad was really supportive. So I asked what his Mom said, and he hemmed and hawed, and looked guilty, and said he’d kind of left it to his Dad to tell her. But his Dad hadn’t told her until the week before he left! So he got a call from his Mother saying “Dad tried to pull this great prank by telling me that you’re going to live at the South Pole for a year. And you leave in one week! Ha ha!” Oh, his poor mother!

During this time I got an e-mail to call someone in McMurdo about my travel arrangements coming out of the Pole. Which means I got to use the Iridium network to make a phone call! I had never used the iridium before, and I felt really cool. (And I was only slightly let down by the fact that the connection has about a 20 second delay!)

Last but not least, I sadly lost my knife this week. I put it on top of one of the DOM boxes while I was removing the next overcarton, and I forgot about it. By the time I remembered the forklift had moved the sled into the tent, so I went back to look for it, but with so many forklift tracks in the snow I’m positive it’s been thoroughly buried and will never be found again.


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