Monday, March 29, 2010

The End of The World

I shot this panorama last week during an inspection trip to the 9-meter satellite dish at the farthest point of the station.  Where I was standing is called the End of the World because it is the furthest place on the station that is normally accessible.  Beyond this point neither machinery nor people regularly go.  Conditions: -65F, 18 mph wind, -98F windchill.

Those antennas might be inspected once a year.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

10 Seconds

I'm sure you readers are getting tired of it by now and are probably muttering, "Again with the cold", but let me assure you that as the winter progresses every week has been a new experience in cold appreciation.  Let me try to explain what -104F wind chill is like.

When I dress in my ECW* it is inside in the warmth of the station.  By the time I am ready to go out I am nice and toasty and maybe even a little hot.  But once I step out the door that warmth is instantly sucked out of my clothes by the cold and wind.  The temperature next to my skin goes from around 85 to the mid 60s in about 10 seconds.  It happens so fast I can actually feel the temperature dropping inside my ECW.  After 15 seconds the only heat I have is what is being produced by my body - which is now working hard trying to keep that tiny air space inside my ECW warm.  For me there is no more stark indicator of how cold it really is here than those first 10 seconds outside the door. 

This is aggressive cold that demands attention.  It envelops my ECW, sucking away every bit of heat it can find, and for the most part it succeeds - being just barely held at bay by the heat my own body produces.  And it is a fine line.  If you were to go outside and simply stand there you would freeze to death despite all the ECW because your body would not produce enough heat to keep you warm.  You have to keep moving, keeping your body active to produce enough heat to warm that precious inside layer of air.  

This is cold where you can't make mistakes. I now cover every square inch of my head with layers of fleece.  I wear a breathing device over my nose and mouth that gives me pre-warmed air to breath, and I wear goggles over my eyes.  If I leave even a sliver of skin exposed on my face it will be frostbitten in minutes, so just before going outside I always look in a mirror to make sure I haven't left any skin exposed by accident.  Even then I sometimes have to come back inside after a few seconds because I will have left the tiniest bit of skin accessible to the wind and cold. 

Yet I can't just throw on all my warm clothes because being too hot is worse than being too cold.  If I am too hot I will sweat, and wet clothes do not insulate.  Yesterday I experimented for hours to get things right. Too hot in the chest area... come back inside and take off fleece.  Too cold in the arms... come back inside and exchange a short sleeve undershirt for a long sleeved one.  Too cold in the legs... come back inside and add a layer of thermal underwear or another layer of wind-proof pants (but not both - too hot)!  Then I realized my hair was wet because my head was sweating - very, very bad!  So I remove a layer of head covering.  And on and on.   I'll say one thing for the South Pole Station, it is very convenient having an ultra-low temperature test chamber for winter clothing just outside the door.  Mere steps away.  Here there is no waiting for cold.

Luckily I only have to get this right once and then I will be able to suit up without worry and stay out for an hour or so. Well no, that's not quite right - in reality how long I stay out depends on Antarctica.  It's like Antarctica sees me, smirks and says, "Now try this" and turns up the cold or the wind.  The coldest temperature ever recorded here was -117F.  The coldest temperature so far this winter has been -81F, but the winter is just four days old.

[April 3: Since I wrote this last week the temperature dropped to -87F with a -127 windchill.  It was only for a day but since it is so early in the season I think it portends a cold winter.  I made a 45-minute foray to the Jamesways and back that day and my gear and breathing mask setup kept me warm.]

[October 6: It is now the end of the winter and only three weeks until we all leave.  The low temperature for the season was -104F.  I don't remember the windchill.  I have become an expert n ECW gear (duh) and can now stay warm for a couple of hours when the windchill is down around -140F]

*ECW - Extreme Cold Weather gear

Thursday, March 18, 2010


We experienced an unusual ice effect at Pole yesterday called Yukimarimos.  They are naturally formed delicate frost balls that are blown across the surface of the ice by the wind. Our yuki's were small because our wind was a little strong, but many were as big as gumballs (update: early this morning yukis the size of golf balls were gathered in the depressions outside the staton - a few hours later they were all gone).  There were millions of them blowing across the ice yesterday, gathering in depressions as if hiding from the wind and then moving on when disturbed.  They are very delicate wisps of surface frost that have been set in motion by the wind and become spherical as they travel across the surface gathering up more frost.  I think you can see how delicate they are in the second picture. These are a pile of yukis the size of gumballs that have gathered in a depression, out of the wind...

Yukimarimos were first noted by Japanese scientists in 1995 and they seem to form on high altitude ice sheets in Antarctica from time to time.  "Yuki" is Japanese for snow and "marimo" is a a ball-like plant found in northern hemisphere lakes, so yukimarimo means "snow-ball" or "snow-roller".  When the light is right you can see how delicate and diaphenous they are...

The little yukis seem almost alive as they roll across the ice sheet, scurrying away and blowing around you as you stand gazing at them.  If you simply look across the ice sheet you don't notice them rolling along, but if you look down at the ones scurrying around your feet and then slowly raise your gaze you can see that they are rolling along the surface for hundreds of yards in every direction.  As you walk along the ice the eddys around your feet release even more of them and they roll away from you downwind like they have taken flight.  The yukis below are about the size of M&Ms and you can see even smaller ones clinging to the walls of the depression...

If it hadn't been so danged cold out there at -70 I could have watched them for hours but ten minutes was all I could take.  Even then I got a frost-niped finger on my camera hand (you can’t push the shutter button with mittens on).  So I hope everyone appreciates these pictures, I suffered for them.

Here are some other pictures from the original researchers who first observed and named them...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Emergency at South Pole

Oh alright - simulated emergency at South Pole.  Last weekend we had our first winter emergency drill, a simulated snowmobile accident about 200 yards away from the station.  Saturday morning all of our Emergency Response Teams responded to a general station alarm announcing there was an unknown injury at the big fish behind the station (the big fish is an ice sculpture left over from a summer ice sculpting contest).  The first responders arrived on scene in about 7 minutes to find one female victim with an arm trapped under the snowmobile and the other rider trying to dig her out.  Seven minutes was a very good response time considering everyone has to don serious ECW gear to go outside.  Did I forget to mention that it was -71F with a -94F wind chill?

Although everything did not go perfectly it was a very good response considering it was our first unannounced drill of the season and everyone was caught by surprise.  The victim was found, assessed, immobilized on a backboard, transported, and in Medical 18 minutes after the first ERT team member arrived.

I have to compliment our primary victim, Shelby, who produced some very realistic screaming whenever she was moved.  As an added surprise the second snowmobile rider, Derek, appeared perfectly normal at first but collapsed on cue in the middle of the drill to add an unexpected second victim to the teams' duties.

As Safety Engineer it is my responsibility to plan these drills and set up emergency drill scenarios.  We are required to run at least one drill a month and as the season goes on they will get more difficult.  I try to keep them realistic, so there won't be any meteor strikes on the main station, but I'm sure there will be some victims who will be difficult to get to, some mass-casualty drills, some fires, and some drills where the victim can't be easily found.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Food, food, food...

Just so you don't think I am down here eating cold beans out of tin cans, here was this evening's dinner menu at the South Pole Galley, Friday, March 5, 2010:

Vegetable Black Bean Soup
Red Leaf and Mizuna lettuce (grown in our own greenhouse), tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumbers and olives
New York Strip Steak (inch thick) grilled to order with Steak Diane Sauce
Sliced Potatoes Lyonaise in Onion and Paprika
Grilled Portabella Mushrooms with Red Peppers, Fennel, Cummin and Gouda
Steamed Broccoli
Crab Cakes
Cherry Tart, Homemade Brownies and four kinds of homemade cookies (cookies are a constant)

That was just tonight's dinner and believe it or not its pretty typical.  Oh, and its all you can eat.  And free. I might be able to complain about a lot of things here, but the food isn't one of them. Out of 47 people here this winter three are chefs or cooks.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Starting to get serious...

Now we're starting to get serious about cold.  We have our first winter storm coming in today and the meteorologist says it should last for three or four days.  It will have overcast skies, high winds, blowing snow and very cold windchills.  I have had to boost my cold weather gear by another layer and have started using hand and toe warmers when I go out and the storm hasn't even started yet.  Right now it is -56 with a 13 kt wind.  Luckily I don't have to go out until later today and then it is just to walk about a quarter mile to a heated building to do some work.

Around the station the winterization activities are winding down and station life should get into its winter groove pretty soon.  Everyone has been assigned various duties over the past two weeks like replacing bedding in the remote living areas so the summer crew will have clean bedding when they arrive next October.  This year's summer people left the areas in a shambles and we have had lots of extra work cleaning and removing junk from all the jameways before turning off the heat.  Jamesways are heated quonset type buildings that have been partitioned into 16 or so sleeping rooms, each with a bed, a desk and a place to hang clothes.  They are pretty primitive but a lot of people like them.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours replacing blankets, quilts and sheets in the jamesway I had been assigned to clean, so it is now complete.  You wouldn't think it would take two hours to throw  some bedding on top of a few mattresses, but things can be kind of slow here when it is so cold.  Last week a friend and I had cleaned the building and removed all the junk so with the clean bedding it is now ready to shut down.  Later today four of us have to start on a building called the Ice Palace which contains public showers , restrooms and laundry that I have heard was left in terrible condition.  At least that building will be heated.  Of course we still have to walk through the storm to get back and forth.

I'll be glad when all the cleaning up after the summer people is over.