Sunday is something of a down day at the Pole because many of the Polies have the day off.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the scientists who are down here for a relatively short while take the whole day off. Our group is no exception. IceCube drills with three shifts, seven days a week and the schedule is very tight. The Data Handling group, of which I’m a member, spent a good part of the day preparing for tomorrow’s chaos.
Even so, we still found time to relax a bit before the upcoming week. Some of my co-workers and I took some time out to take our obligatory “hero shots” at the geographic South Pole. Since the Pole will be moved on 01 Jan 2007 by the US Geologic Survey, I’ll have to take these photos again just before I leave.
There was plenty of excitement around the base today as we got word that the ANITA balloon may be visible from the Pole at some point during the day. The ANITA balloon is an absolutely massive balloon that is conducting neutrino studies high in the atmosphere. One person familiar with the project said that the interior of the balloon could hold the entire Astrodome and part of the parking lot; another person described the enclosed volume as similar to that of the Sears Tower. Understandably, we were all eager to see such an unusual thing. The balloon hove into view in the late afternoon and was visible well into the evening. Even though it was better than one hundred miles away, it was visible as a noticeably man-made item in the sky.
I should note here that any unique person or phenomena will generate high levels of interest here at the Pole, especially among those who’ve been here for a while already. It wasn’t that the station personnel were particularly interested in the ANITA project or its results (though some of our scientists certainly were) that got people out to see the balloon. It was the idea of something different. When you’re in a place as dead as this one, with two hundred odd souls in close proximity and not another soul or habitation for hundreds of miles, different suddenly becomes very good.
The biggest downside of the day was that I had to attend another briefing. This one is known as the Outdoor Safety Lecture (OSL). A woman flew in from McMurdo on my flight and she conducted an overnight camping trip away from the station last night, and the OSL briefing tonight. Suffice it to say that hypothermia was starting to look pretty appealing as an alternative to sitting through the OSL about half-way through the briefing. At least with hypothermia I’d require immediate medical attention which would have rescued me from the conference room. The OSL course is required before Raytheon employees or NSF Grantees are allowed to do some of the more interesting hikes, ski trips and the like away from McMurdo. Since there is always the possibility that I’d get stuck in McMurdo on my way off the continent, I decided to get OSL out of the way so that I would have more recreational opportunities if I got stuck in McMurdo.
The OSL is a prime example of the difference between the Pole and McMurdo. At McMurdo, going on certain hikes (even over to the Kiwi base) means paperwork and bureaucracy. First, you have to file an eFoot Plan, which is a fancy name and computer application for “tell us where you’re going, with whom, how, and when you’ll be back so we know when to start looking for you.” Some trails require you to travel only in groups of two or larger. Many trails require you to take a radio and checkin at the Firehouse before and after you hit the trail. Of course, you can’t do any of these things until you’ve wasted an hour of your Antarctic experience sitting through OSL.
Here at the Pole you can pick a direction (North, perhaps?) and start walking until the station can’t be seen over the horizon. If you’re well-prepared or lucky you’ll even get back without assistance. There is no helicopter here to assist in a rescue and the snow is so hard that the folks here aren’t likely to find your tracks in it. It’s just assumed that if you’re here, you are probably not dumb enough to put your life at risk by doing incredibly stupid things. And if you are that dumb, no amount of bureaucracy is likely to stop you, so why bother?
The kitchen runs with a smaller staff on Sunday and only serves two meals: brunch and dinner. Since I’m not a huge brunch fan, I got up early and served myself cereal and a peanut butter and honey sandwich before the galley opened. Then, I had the tail end of brunch for lunch. Dinner was pot roast. Ugh. Under the best of circumstances I don’t like pot roast so I didn’t even try it. Those who did were universally disappointed by dry, fatty, tough meat. Instead of the pot roast, I had a vegetarian curry pot pie-style dish, a big helping of broccoli, and a big serving of salad. Part of the salad greens are grown in the station’s greenhouse, so eating the salad is as close as you can get to eating locally grown food at the Pole.
I’ve started carrying my camera around the station with me as there are some funny and unusual things that seemingly pop-up for a short period of time and then disappear. For instance, this seemingly odd scene could be found for a period of time at the base of an emergency exit on the station’s second level. My guess is that they were trying to close an air leak with spray foam, but I found the sign funny nonetheless.
I took my GPS unit out to the Pole today while helping someone take some shots for a fifth grade class. According the to the unit, I’m now 9179 miles from our home in Madison, even though I’ve gone eight hundred miles further south than my last reading. However, there is some supposition that the unit doesn’t gracefully handle a situation where a user is at a Pole. The unit also had trouble deciding where the Pole could be found. Initially, it displayed S90°00.00’, but then it would never display exactly ninety degrees again, even though I had accuracy down to fifteen feet. Perhaps it just got cold and wanted to be taken indoors for another try on another day.