Friday, May 14, 2010

Excerpt from an email to a friend...

Hello again -

Life here at the Pole is difficult to describe. I'm often very busy and at other times bored. But the strangeness of the environment is the one thing that never gets boring. It is a blend of barren, stark, beautiful, frightening and magnificent. Sometimes when I am outside I just have to stop and look around me and at the night sky to realize how lucky I am to be one of the few people to have ever seen what I am seeing. There are only 1,200 people who have ever even seen the Polar night sky. We have just had our first truly dark night and the stars are simply magnificent, and the aurora are building up as well. Of course it is cold and getting colder, and walking outside is getting more difficult every week due to the sastrugi. The sastrugi, wind-blown furrows of snow, are getting larger and have to be climbed over to get anywhere. The best I can describe it would be to ask you to imagine a solid disturbed ocean where to get anywhere you have to walk up 1-3 foot waves and then down the other side, over and over again - while blindfolded.  Because the barometric pressure varies so much here our effective altitude varies between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, so climbing those frozen waves can be exhausting. We have seen 11,750 feet, and at that altitude even sleeping can be difficult. Today it is 10,700 feet. Even though I have been here almost four months and have acclimated well, when things get difficult I still sometimes have to stop and do nothing but concentrate on breathing. Well, that's my current life.  I've included a picture of two of our small loaders hanging out in the warm Heavy Shop getting serviced. They can't take the cold so they are only operated in the summer, but they are so cute. Their names are Emma and Wall-E.  They are very fast and compared to the big dozers they zoom around the ice like little bugs all summer.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Answers to South Pole Questions

To answer some recently asked questions:
  1. Is the Pole Marker moving away from the station?  The station sits on a 3.5 kilometer thick ice sheet and that sheet is moving about 30 feet per year, so we have to move the pole marker that amount every January to keep it over the true Pole.  Currently the marker is moved along the front of the station from left to right so it isn't really getting further from the station, but in a few years it will start moving off into the ice.
  2. How do we heat the station?  Ninety-nine percent of our energy comes from winterized aviation fuel, which is basically kerosene fuel.  Everything on the station runs on this fuel except two gasoline-powered snowmobiles (I'm sure if the NSF could find diesel-powered snowmobiles they would buy them). This is the same fuel the LC-130 transport planes use in their engines so whenever one lands during the summer all its extra fuel is pumped into our fuel storage tanks.  Every plane during the summer does this, and that is how we squirrel away enough fuel to last the winter.  The exception is the trans-Antarctic traverse which uses tractors to drag huge fuel bladders from the coast to the Pole.  This isn't done every year, but it is more efficient than bringing all our fuel in by plane. The last traverse was in the summer of 2008. We do have a very small wind generator, but it is more of a test than a real power source, only giving us about 1 kW.
  3. How efficient are we in using fuel?  Very.  In fact we do not use any fuel to heat the station. I know that sounds strange, but we run our power plant generators only to produce electricity to power communications, science experiments, and lights - and we use the waste heat from those generators to provide heat (even for hot water and the laundry room clothes dryers).  Basically we heat the station the same way your car's heater works - by collecting waste heat from our engine's cooling system.  The insulation in the floors, walls and ceilings helps a lot because it is a foot thick.  All our outside doors are commercial freezer doors about eight inches thick, but instead of keeping the cold inside a freezer they keeps it outside where we prefer it.
  4. How warm is the station?  We keep it pretty cool, between 60F and 65F but it could be warmer if needed.  We are all used to it and think this is a comfortable temperature range.  A few weeks ago when it got to 70F we were complaining that it was too hot.  The thermometer on my desk says it is 65F right now and I am sitting here in a t-shirt.  We don't generally bundle up in the station, but if you were here you would see people wearing everything from fleece jackets to t-shirts sitting in the same room together. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Polar Vignettes...

Alone, two hundred yards from the station in the general direction of Africa. It's dark and windy.  I'm standing there getting myself used to the layout of the station grounds and how to navigate in bad weather.  The weather is good so it is unlikely I will actually get lost and have to call a rescue team, lol, but this is practice.  I purposefully frost up my goggles so I can't see anything and navigate back to the invisible main station using the wind direction and the glow of the moon off my right shoulder as navigation aids. I am so blind I actually walk into a station support column.  It's true - you really don't have to be able to see to get around.

Sitting at a galley table one quiet afternoon. The station's emergency alarm goes off. Sirens, buzzers, strobe lights! I know this isn't a drill because I plan the drills. This is real. The automated voice says there is a fire in the Power Plant. I run to get my cold weather gear because to get to the Power Plant means passing through the -90 ice tunnels. Others running too. I go down the hallway, down the beer can, through the ice tunnel - there is heavy white smoke in the generator room! But it isn't a fire, just a coolant leak. Serious in itself but not a fire at least. Three hours later I return to my cold lunch on the galley table. I'm coughing - my throat and lungs are frostbitten because I ran through the cold ice tunnels.

I wake up and look at my watch - it's 3:30 AM Sunday morning.  My throat is dry because my humidifier ran out of water during the night. I need something to drink so I get up and stumble through the early morning station into the galley and see... twenty people sitting around tables laughing and talking! What's going on!? What? it's 3:30 in the AFTERNOON? My first South Pole winter-over moment.  185 days to go.

There is a photography project where people around the world take a picture depicting life on the planet at the same moment on May 2. Here at the South Pole that moment came at 3AM on May 3. I get out of bed and put on all my ECW gear, mount my camera on a tripod and head outside. -75F. But I forgot to set my camera before I went out. It's on movie mode! Grrrr. With gloves off I try to push the tiny buttons needed to take a picture in the dark, but before I can do it my hands are too cold to operate it. The camera is becoming a block of frozen sub-zero metal. Screw this. I go back inside to bed.

Horseshoe night in the vehicle maintenance shop. The dozers and loaders have been taken outside to clear space  for the pits (and left running or they would be out there until November). I throw a few practice tosses and don't even reach the sand pit. But I get better and win my game 11 to 4. Later that night the metal horseshoes get so cold from lying on the frozen shop floor that one breaks in half when thrown. It's a different world down here.