Events of Christmas Day

As we rapidly approach observance of New Years here at the Pole, I suppose it’s time to recount Christmas Day.
The day before Christmas, the International Trans Antarctic Expedition (ITASE) rolled into town. I use the word rolled because ITASE is one of the numerous traverses bound for the Pole this year. The traverse members lived in little buildings on skis pulled by their Caterpillar tractors and a Pisten Bully until they arrived here on Christmas Eve. They joined us for Christmas dinner and they all seemed fairly happy to have new people with whom to converse. In the picture below you can see the two little buildings on skis that the traverse members had available to them on their drive across half the continent.
ITASE Trailers

Christmas Day started with the annual Race Around the World, a roughly two mile run/walk/ski/crawl/bike/drive around the Pole. You can basically get around the course however you want but the only prizes are for the first male and female runners who the finish line. As usual, there was the sofa on a sled pulled by a snowmobile and the fire truck drove around the course blaring tunes over the public address system. A pair of the station’s Pisten Bullies took part in the race as did a massive (and slow) tracked bull dozer. Finally, one of the ITASE tractors decided to race as well. The ITASE tractor can be seen at the starting line in the photo below with the massive bull dozer just in front of it. I guess they figured that they’d already driven hundreds of miles of frozen wasteland, so what was another two for the sake of the race.

ITASE Tractor

After brunch, I decided to check out some skis and boots andtry some cross-country skiing. I don’t necessarily have the stereotypical nordic skiing getup here, so I had to make due with what I had. Long underwear, jeans, two fleeces, and my headgear was the uniform of the day. The wind chill was -38°F and the sun was shining which is a moderate summer day here. I headed out onto the wastes for about three hours of skiing. One neat thing about the cold temperatures is that water freezes very quickly so you can see your performance clothing at work. As I worked up a sweat, the two fleeces wicked the water to the surface where it froze and form a light sheen of snow and ice. That may have looked cold, but it meant that I was staying warm as the water wasn’t sitting next to my skin and freezing.

After about an hour on the trail I decided to try and find the station’s “ski hut” because ice was forming on the inside of my goggles as my breath condensed on the lens and froze. The ski hut is known locally as the Love Shack and while I had heard stories about the Love Shack, I’d never been there before. Eventually I did find the Shack, which can be seen in the picture below.

The so-called Love Shack

The Shack isn’t much more than a black-painted building similar to our outhouses here. The black paint keeps the interior of the building about 32°F in the summer, which feels plenty warm when you step out of the wind and cold and you’re in your cold weather gear. I spent twenty minutes there clearing my goggles, drinking a warm beverage I had in my backpack, and signing the logbook. After that, it was out onto the trail for another hour and one half. For an idea of the scenery you get while skiing here, check out the picture below. If you’re in the mood for variety, Nordic skiing here isn’t necessarily the answer.

South Pole Scenery

Since Christmas Day it’s been work as normal here. IceCube drillers continue to drill holes in the ice while our deployment teams continue to place long strings of instruments in them. I’m still working in our Data Center here to get our computing environment in shape to run for the next nine or so months.

Today is Sunday at the Pole and volunteers will be decorating the gym for our New Years celebration. The station is taking today and tomorrow off for observance of New Years, even though New Years Eve doesn’t fall until Monday night. I’m guessing that there will be plenty of hung-over RPSC employees come Tuesday morning.

Christmas Eve

By the time you read this, it will be Christmas here at the South Pole. Due to the timezone we observe here, the South Pole sees Christmas a full nineteen hours before those of you in the Midwest.
Normally, people here on station work six days a week and Sunday is an off-day. However, Christmas traditionally is one of the rare occasions when people get two days off. Since Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, the station worked on Sunday and got Monday and Tuesday off. Of course, for scientists and support staff like myself, we’re not necessarily bound by what the NSF and Raytheon Polar Services Corp. do, so we usually work a bit nearly every day.

Mingling Before Christmas Dinner

As part of the Christmas celebration, the station has Christmas dinner, complete with appetizers, egg nog (with rum), and live music. Due to the size of the station’s summer population and the physical realities of the galley, Christmas dinner is eaten in three shifts on Christmas Eve. We met in the hallway outside the galley for the appetizers, egg nog, and music a half-hour before the meal. We then entered and sat at the usual tables, only they were covered with cloth tablecloths. Instead of paper napkins, we used cloth napkins. The plates were still plastic and so were the water glasses, but there were candles (usually a huge no-no in Antarctica due to the fire danger), strings of lights on the ceiling, and wine stewards who poured wine and delivered dessert. We still ate the main course buffet-style, but nobody complained. The dinner this year was beef wellington, lobster tails, mashed potatoes, vegetable wellington, two types of gravy, asparagus, some sort of root vegetable combination, salad, chocolate something or other pie, pecan pie, some sort of meringue pie, fresh whipped cream, chocolate truffles and fudge, and an array of cookies. Suffice it to say that anyone who left the galley hungry after that meal had only themself to blame. You only got an hour to eat, including toasts, dessert, and waiting in line for food, so no one could push back from the table and ruminate about the meaning of life, but again, it is Antarctica (a harsh continent, or so we always say), so no one complained. After dinner, we all bussed our plates into the dish pit so that they could be quickly washed and placed back on the tables for the next shift.

I volunteered in the dish pit yesterday morning. There are a few people on station who are dedicated dish washers, but even they get time off and helping out in the dish pit is something of a station tradition. Doing all those dishes isn’t exactly a great time, but it is something that people here do to participate in the community. Just as we all have to clean bathrooms, lounges, and the like, doing a whole heap of dishes is part of living here.

South Pole Tourist Planes

While I was working the dish pit, two planeloads of tourists came by to see the place. Their planes, pictured above, were parked in the non-governmental activies area here. If you’ve got well over $34,000 to spend, there is a company that will happily get you to the Pole for several hours. You can’t spend the night here, and you aren’t exactly free to wander about without an escort, but you do get a tour of the station, a cup of coffee and a cookie in the galley, and an opportunity to shop the station store. There were twenty or so filthy rich…er, I mean intrepid souls who wandered past the pit while I was working there. Most of them looked like tourists, just wearing more cold weather gear than you might expect to find on a tourist in a more typical locale. One or two of them looked decidedly displeased with the altitude.

Lest anyone think that it’s all peaches and cream here, I should relate a story of youth, testosterone, alcohol, and stupidity. As you might expect when those four items are key elements in the story, it doesn’t end well for all concerned. Generally, flights into and out of the Pole are non-existent on holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Years. That’s why I was surprised to see a skier (that’s what we call LC-130 Hercules flights here) inbound for the Pole on the flight schedule today. Eventually, I learned it was a medevac flight. The story behind that flight is uncommon, but not unheard of. As I may have mentioned in the past, many of the RPSC employees here are younger, and the majority of those are male. There are no shortage of twenty-something males who spend their days doing stereotypically manly things like driving heavy equipment, doing construction, performing maintenance, and the like. Two of the local drunken rowdies both chose last night to get stinking drunk and unfortunately for them, their paths crossed sometime after two in the morning. Words were exchanged, punches were thrown, and when the dust cleared one of the rowdies had a bleeding and broken jaw. His assailant fled the scene while the broken-jawed wonder started wandering around the station. He knew he was bleeding, but was so drunk that he couldn’t think straight or feel too much pain. Eventually, someone on the night shift found the bleeding wonder and summoned the doc to Medical. That’s when the station’s management was alerted to the situation and the fact finding began. Soon thereafter, the jaw breaker was named and found (there aren’t many places to hide here). So, the skier I saw was carrying both knuckleheads off the continent: one for medical care and both for termination from their jobs. Normally, the Air Force and National Guard crews get Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, so I can’t imagine they were thrilled to be flying two nitwits off the ice. I’m sure there were no special privileges extended to the drunken duo on their flights back to New Zealand.

Near White Out Conditions

The weather here was fairly rough a few days ago. It wasn’t much colder or windier than usual, but the atmospheric conditions made it seem like you were living inside a ping-pong ball when you went outdoors. As you can see in the picture above, there was almost no definition between ground and sky. Several vehicles were driven off what we call roads here and into drifts, even though the station speed limit is fifteen miles an hour. It was hard even for pedestrians to see definition in the ground twenty feet ahead. Some flights into the Pole were delayed as a result of those conditions, but not nearly as many as I expected. The National Guard pilots who fly the Hercs out of McMurdo to the Pole must not have found the conditions as daunting as they seemed.

Once the weather cleared up a bit, a coworker and I went up onto the roof of the ICL to examine a few things in our rooftop antenna farm. While we were up there, we took a few photos. The picture below is me, standing on the roof of the ICL, with the IceCube drill camp in the background.

David on the IceCube Lab Roof

"The Biff" and an Air Drop

As I’ve written about life in Antarctica in the past, you can get people to turn out for just about anything if it is different than the routine.

As I’ve gotten to know a couple of the NOAA folks on station, and one of the meteorological technicians, I started to hear more and more about “the biff.” If there is one universal truth of Antarctic life, it is that an acronym or abbreviation enhances nearly all facets of life. So, I assumed that “the biff” was merely the pronunciation used by those in the know for YAA (Yet Another Acronym). The BIF, or Balloon Inflation Facility, is a “temporary” building, erected in 1995, where balloons are filled, payloads are attached, and then the whole mess is set free to monitor weather, ozone, CFCs, and other components of our atmosphere.

Weather Balloon in the BIFF.

Weather Balloon in the BIFF.

The day I went out to observe a balloon launch was the day that the NOAA crew sent up their once a week ozone sounding balloon to sample ozone levels at varying altitudes. The Met techs (that’s the local slang for meteorological technicians) send up balloons twice a day, at 10:00 and 22:00, but their balloons are smaller, so I was interested to see this much larger balloon. The process of readying the balloon for launch is fairly straightforward. First, the workspace is cleared of all sharp objects (duh). Then, the latex balloon is attached to a helium inflation system which runs for several minutes to fill the balloon. Once the balloon is full, it is secured to the table with string so that an instrument package and a parachute can be attached. The parachute is used to slowly float the instrument package back to the ground once the balloon bursts so that readings can be taken on the way down, in addition to the way up. Finally, a pair of two-story steel doors are opened so that the balloon can be taken outside.

Weather Balloon Launch

Weather Balloon Launch

Once the balloon is outside, the drama is over fairly quickly. The balloon is released and ten to fifteen seconds later it has risen so far that it can no longer be seen.

Polies Watching the Air Drop

Polies Watching the Air Drop

Today, we had the second C-17 air drop ever at the Pole. The Air Force is practicing their air drops during the summer season so that if they ever needed to make a winter air drop, they would have some idea of what to expect. Last year, the air drop was a series of large containers that contained food that were all sent out the back of the plane in one go. This year, we had two drops of smaller boxes. The first drop was a series of eight to ten boxes. The C-17 then circled around again, and had another go. This time, two of the boxes tangled on the way out the door and they fell like stones to the snow. According to people who were working the drop, those boxes are deeply embedded in the snow. As you might expect, the air drop was a big event here on station, and a good number of people turned out to watch it. Weekly events like yoga, and the Wednesday night documentary film series were also cancelled so that people could see the air drop.

C-17 Flyby

C-17 Flyby

Once the air drop itself was concluded, the C-17 made a series of low level passes down the skiway. The theory there was that if the Air Force had to do a winter air drop, they would try and drop on the skiway, rather than way out past the antenna farm. That would make retrieval significantly easier for the winterovers. There is no reason to make them battle distance, in addition to brutal temperatures and darkness.

C-17 Departing

C-17 Departing

In other, more personal news, today was a big day for me: shower day. I took my second shower since I arrived on station last Wednesday. We only get two, two minute showers per week, but maybe that just makes each one that much sweeter.

I’m looking forward to Friday night. Since there are no television signals at the Pole, we get a series of DVDs from McMurdo every Thursday or Friday that contain many of the televised football games from the previous weekend. Since the Vikes played on Monday night, we’ll get that game, no doubt. Every Friday night at 19:30, a number of us gather in one of the lounges to watch one game on TV as a group. Since the organizer of that event is also a Vikings fan, we may end up watching that game on the big screen. Regardless, I could always get the DVD and watch the game myself on my laptop.

Open House

IceCube held its annual open house for the station population yesterday.
The larger science projects at the Pole will have open houses about once a year to give the rest of the station population an idea of just what they’re up to. Most science buildings are off-limit to personnel who aren’t directly involved in a related project. For instance, even though ARO is a short walk from the station and there aren’t any locks on the doors, I would definitely be breaking protocol if I went there without the blessing and/or presence of someone associated with NOAA, the building’s primary occupant.

Similarly, the IceCube Lab (hereafter ICL) and the IceCube Drill Camp are strictly off-limits to non-IceCube personnel. Our open house is an opportunity for people to come out in a sanctioned fashion and get a glimpse of what we do and why.

A View Across the Skiway

A View Across the Skiway

The ICL is a good walk from the station, roughly a mile. In the photo above, the ICL is the two vertical grey-ish bars slightly off-center to the left. The IceCube Drill Camp is the low-cluster of grey bars centered in the photo. The South Pole Telescope and BICEP are the buildings off-center to the right.This photo was taken from just outside the station to give you an idea of how far away the building is. Most days, I make the walk to the ICL and back in about fifteen to twenty minutes each way. However, for the open house we had a shuttle van running that took people from the station, to the Drill Camp, the ICL, and then back to the station.

The IceCube Lab (ICL)

The IceCube Lab (ICL)

The photo above shows the ICL in greater detail. As you can see, it is an elevated two-story building with a pair of multi-story towers on either side. The snow ramp in front allows us to bring cargo up to the first floor with greater ease. The two towers are where the cables from the strings of instruments we place into the ice enter the building. The first floor is given over to work benches and lab space while the second floor houses the data center.

We had a good turn out for the open house. Last year, only seven or so people turned out to see what one of the largest science projects on station was about. This year we had twenty or so. Some people are interested in the science, some want to see the drill and the holes it makes, others just want to see whatever they can because it’s different from their normal routine (different is a huge selling point for just about anything in Antarctica). In addition to station personnel, some skiers who were camping out near the Pole until their plane picks them up later today joined the group.

One of the tour highlights for many people was our near real-time event viewer. This is a new bit of software that our colleagues at the University of Maryland produced this year. It shows the detector and how it reacts to incoming particles. I took a crude video of the computer screen that shows the viewer in action. (Note: You’ll likely need to have QuickTime installed to view the video.)The blue grid represents the ice surface. The rotating strings of lights below the surface of the ice represent the strings of instruments that we currently have in the ice. The green dots on top of the ice represent an associated experiment called IceTop. The red line represents a particle and as it enters the detector, you can see how it lights up the in-ice instruments in and around its path before exiting the detector.

David's Office in the ICL.

David's Office in the ICL.

Out at the ICL I have a little office that I use. It isn’t assigned to me but no one else ever seems too keen on sitting there so I call it mine. It is spartan, but it does include a desk with a phone and a window. The window is a bubble-style window that I can use to look out on the South Pole Telescpe or the Drill Camp. An example view from the window is below.

South Pole Telescope and BICEP

South Pole Telescope and BICEP

At the Pole Once Again

Once again, I find myself at the South Pole.

C-17 Cargo Deck

C-17 Cargo Deck

My ice flights this year were quite nice. Last year I shared the plane with over 90 people and a firetruck. This year, the C-17 flight out of Christchurch to McMurdo only had 27 people on it, so they filled up the plane with cargo. I sat along the side of the plane with a 10-ton bulldozer right in front of me and a box of corrosive, flammable methanol phosphoric acid to my left. The bulldozer seemed to be held in place with far too few chains for its size and weight, so I found myself making plans to quickly jump on top of the tracks if the thing started to slip towards me rapidly during flight. Fortunately, we landed at Pegasus field near McMurdo without incident.

David with C-17 in Background

David with C-17 in Background

McMurdo hasn’t changed. It sill looks like a mining town that, strangely enough, doesn’t engage in mining. The food still isn’t great, the station is crowded, and the area is dirty in the summer when the ice and snow melt and the volcanic dust flies everywhere. One nice thing about McMurdo is that there are numerous recreational trails around it where people can go hiking. So, while I had time to kill, I availed myself of those opportunities and went on a couple of nice hikes. As the ice has thinned a bit near the station, the waddell seals have been breaking through the really thin bits to sun themselves on top of the thicker bits. It’s not legal or very practical to get near the seals, so I got some pictures but they aren’t great.

McMurdo

McMurdo

Despite some flight delays, we got out of McMurdo near our scheduled departure time and I arrived at the South Pole yesterday. For whatever reason, the altitude this year hasn’t affected me nearly as much as it did last year when I first arrived. Maybe it’s the Diamox (an altitude acclimation drug) or maybe I’m just imagining it. Because this wasn’t my first year here, I got to skip the briefing that all first-timers have to endure when they first arrive. I got my berth assignment (I’m in the station itself again this year), dropped my bags in my room, and started having conversations about what needs priority attention while I’m here.

Today I toured a building we call ARO (pronounced air-o). ARO stands for Atmospheric Research Observatory. It primarily conducts research related to particles and compounds in the atmosphere. For instance, they monitor the number of CFCs in the atmosphere and they have data that demonstrate the affect that banning CFCs had in the recent past. They also monitor carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to support climate change science and ozone levels to monitor the fabled ozone hole. As part of my tour, I got a glass vial that is filled with “The World’s Cleanest Air.” ARO is a sector known as the Clean Air Sector and incredible care is taken to ensure that everything that can be done is done to ensure that station pollution doesn’t reach ARO.

It hasn’t been all sightseeing today, however. I had House Mouse duties this afternoon, so I had to clean the bathrooms on my floor. In addition, I started the process of knocking items off my own work to-do list.

The wind was quite strong here today which meant bitterly cold windchills, reduced visibility, and plenty of drifting snow. The winds here at the Pole aren’t very strong compared to stations on the coast, but the low temperatures and the ice crystals always present in the air make even moderately strong winds quite unpleasant. Hopefully, today will be a bit calmer.

Blowing Snow at the South Pole

Blowing Snow at the South Pole

One of the three satellites that provides Internet connectivity to the Pole is currently unavailable to us, so we’re down to less than eight hours a day of Internet access and those hours start at 02:30 local time. So I’ll try to keep up my blog, but it may not be a daily affair.

"This is a brutal flight."

Those were the first words I said to the lady sitting next to me as I sat down for the Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand leg of my flight to the South Pole.Friday, I left Madison to start the five day journey to the Pole. The journey begins with a series of commercial flights to Christchurch, New Zealand. In my case, the first flight (2.5 hours in duration) took me from Madison to Dallas. Once there, I boarded a 3.5 hour flight to LAX.

At LAX I had nearly three hours to kill and a wicked hunger so I decided to seek out dinner rather than simply eating a snack and hoping for the best with dinner on the plane. The last two times I went through LAX I ate at one of the restaurants in the international terminal. The food there isn’t going to kill you, but it isn’t memorable either so I decided to seek calories a bit further afield.

It’s worth noting here that LAX is something of a dump. The vast majority of the buildings are gently described as architectural mistakes while the others make parking garage architecture look progressive. After walking past seemingly innumerable gates and ticket counters I finally reached the LAX Theme Building. It’s a building that you’ve likely all seen in movies. Inside that building is Encounter Restaurant. Seeing as how I had some time to kill, a belly to fill, and no other interesting prospects in sight, I made my way up to the restaurant for a meal.

Encounter Restaurant

Encounter Restaurant

Normally, I’m not a salad guy, but I decided to go out on a limb and try a garden salad with my meal because it sounded good to me as I read the menu. The Toy Box tomatoes that were in the salad were possibly the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. They were so sweet that it was more like eating grapes than tomatoes. The rest of the meal was certainly edible, but not in the same league as those tomatoes.

After filling my belly, I wandered back to my flight and settled in for the nearly thirteen hour flight to Auckland. It is worth noting that a flight of that duration is a strong disincentive for people to visit New Zealand. It’s really a wonderful country filled with fantastic scenery and friendly people but it is so damn far away! Of course, it if was closer the country would likely be overrun with yahoos and that would likely destroy much of its charm so perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much.

The lady sitting next to me was initially skeptical when I told her that the flight we were embarking upon was seemingly interminable. After ten hours of flight time, however, she was singing a different tune and pledging never to attempt such a long flight again without going first class.

We did eventually arive in Auckland, and after waiting almost one and one-half hours, I made it through passport control, customs, and biosecurity. That left me just enough time to hustle over to the domestic terminal to make my flight to Christchurch (1.5 hours in duration).

Finally, after thirty hours of travel, I arrived at my hotel, where I was able to shower, change clothes, and start the process of unwinding both physically and mentally from that much air travel.

The first priority was to get some lunch, so I bought a (very good) spicy brautwurst from a street vendor near an art fair and an English-style bitter from a local brewer. I ate both of those while listening to Christmas carols sung by a local group.

Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols

Once I had taken the edge off my initial hunger, it was time to seek out additional calories. Gelato was the next to find its way into my stomach. I bought a couple of local brews from a bottle shop, a pesto/tomato/brie bagel from a cafe, and made my way into the Botanical Gardens.

Amazing New Zealand Trees

Amazing New Zealand Trees

If there is one thing I like about New Zealand in general, and Christchurch in particular, it is their ability to grow some incredibly impressive trees. There are several trees that I remembered quite vividly from my last trip here and I made it a point of visiting them again today. Taking pictures of the trees hardly does them justice. It’s rather like trying to photograph a very tall skyscraper or a very wide river. You have to get so far away to get the object in the frame that it loose much of its impressive size.

Eventually, I found my way to a pair of absolutely gigantic eucalyptus trees and sat down to continue my repast. As I sat under the canopy of that massive tree, drinking a couple of beers, eating a hot sandwich, and reading a good book, my muscles finally started to unknot. All that flying simply isn’t good for the human body. It was a delight to enjoy the simple pleasures of food, drink, a book, and a gorgeous day before continuing my trip to the Pole.