Sunday, August 29, 2010

You call this SPRING?

Ah, Spring… flowers, bees, 98 below zero, -140F windchill.  We were all fooled by the South Pole for the last few weeks, thinking the temperatures were beginning to moderate as the Sun was returning, but this week Pole is giving us the coldest temperatures so far this winter.  It did drop to below -100F three or four times earlier in the year, but there was no wind when that happened.  We have wind now and the windchills are really low.  It is everyone's opinion that we would rather see -100 with no wind than -70 with a 15 knot wind.  Today we have both.

But Spring it is, and cold or not in only 21 days the Sun will be above the horizon again.  The first flight into Pole is scheduled for three weeks later on October 15th  (note I say scheduled, the weather plays a big part).  Not that any of us winter-overs will be able to leave on that flight – it is just to bring people in, and we hope some bananas and tomatoes…and oranges and grapes and lemons and kiwis and… oh my!  But before the first flight arrives we have to prepare the station for the influx of summer people.  Since no one got killed or pregnant over the winter, there are still only 47 of us to do that.
All winter the snow-drifts have been piling up around the buildings that were unused, and we have to clear, heat and prep all of those before the summer crews arrive.  At the beginning of winter we shut down and basically forgot about most of the out-buildings so there will be a lot of snow shoveling.  I have put my name down to dig out three of the twelve Jamesways (summer housing units), plus a few other tasks.  Plus everyone still has to do all the other things they have had to do over the winter.  The summer folks don’t know how lucky they are – they leave the place filthy and come back to a station ready and waiting for them, down to clean linens and fresh pillows on the beds.  South Pole winter-overs - the most expensive maid service on the planet.  Where else do the maids get dressed in 20 lbs of ECW gear to go make a bed and turn on the heat before the guests arrive?

The sky is getting lighter all the time and walking outside is very nice these days.  It isn’t so dark that you can't see your hand in front of your face (or any of the snow-drifts that trip you up and unexpectedly throw you to the ice), but still not so bright that there is no contrast on the snow.  Of course, a few clouds coming over the Pole changes everything and we can go back to pitch black in a few hours.  The window coverings come off the station windows next week and we will be able to look outside without actually going outside for the first time in six months!  For several weeks we will only be able to see a glow on the horizon as it spins around the Pole, but that will be pretty darned nice.  I’m also sure there will be people complaining about the constant light and having to wear sunglasses in the dining room a few weeks after that.

Although the first few planes that arrive will be Baslers (updated DC-3s) that can operate in very cold temperatures, the LC-130’s that bring in the full summer crews (and take us home!) can’t land until the temperature is above -50F.  They say that usually happens around the last week in October, so 95% of the winter-over crew is scheduled to leave on November 5th after about a week of turnover.  That’s my departure date.  I’ll go to McMurdo Station from Pole and then on to New Zealand the next day.  But it's really too early to start thinking about that – there are still more than two months to go before we leave Pole.  Since the winter season is nine months and the summer only three months, we winter-overs still have what counts as nearly a full season for the summer people. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Snow Contours Photo

Snow drifting near the South Pole station, illuminated by moonlight. July 2010.
Snow Drifts
Photo copyright 2010 Daniel Luongvan

Ice Fog

Ice Fog rolling in from the ice plateau - lit by a full moon.         

This picture is of the plateau on August 26.  It is still dark but you can see the sky and clouds starting to get lighter.  The white cloud on the surface of the ice is a cloud of ice fog rolling in from the plateau. Ice and fog lit by the full moon.  Click for a larger image.

Photo copyright 2010 JC Reaves

Monday, August 23, 2010


After seven months, five of them in complete darkness, I am starting to have a tenuous relationship with time.  Sunday afternoon I thought it was Monday morning; and today, Tuesday, I thought it was Wednesday.  I'm also  waking up at about 3:00 am every morning.  I don't even know what time I go to bed.

The South Pole Scott tent is up for our outdoor camping pleasure.  So far only one person has taken the plunge and tried to sleep in it.   The tent is only about 20 yards from the station, but this is extreme backyard camping nevertheless.  Sign-out, sign-in is required, as is an emergency radio, spare battery, and two huge sleeping bags.  You have to put your boots in the sleeping bag with you or they will be too cold to put on in the morning.  Temperature tonight: -80F.  Think I'll stay in my nice warm room.

We had a Hash House Harriers race here last Saturday night and I was inducted into the International HHH registry.  HHH describes itself as a drinking club with a running problem.  We couldn't run between stops here at Pole because it was too cold and the altitude too high, but we had fun walking the route between drinking stations. What can I say, we have to get our fun where we can.  It was beautiful outside that night with a clear sky, little wind and a bright full Moon to light our way.  Google Hash House Harriers for more information.

Even there are still over two months before we can leave, most everyone is counting the days until then... literally. Seventy-three days until we get airlifted out on an LC-130.  Weather permitting.

South Pole Aurora, Aug 9, 2010. Joe Romagnano

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Showers, the male version

Another Polie has just published a long and amusing post on her Ice White & Blue blog about showers at Pole (warning, it's not a G-rated blog). Showers are an interesting topic, at least for Polies, but I don't seem to suffer the angst and emotional commitment to showers that Genevieve does. Of course she takes her showers in the women's showers and from her post that seems to be a much more icky experience than showering in the male showers.

To conserve power and water each of us only gets two 2-minute showers per week. We get our water from a rod well (technically, a Rodriguez rod-well) but we all call it "The Rodwell". The Rodwell is basically a flexible pipe that extends deep into the ice through which we constantly pump hot water. The result is a huge globe of water deep in the ice enclosed by solid ice. The depth of our rodwell is now giving us water that fell as snow in Antarctica 2,000 years ago. As we use water the depth gets deeper, and the water older, until it is too deep for us to pump anymore.  When that happens (it takes years) we have to start a new rodwell.

I know this is about showers, but let's talk drinking water for a minute. This water here is simply the best tasting water you can imaging. I love it. We can only get it at one remote place in the station before it is treated. This water is so pure it won't support life. It hasn't percolated through soil, or run over rocks in streams, so it doesn't have any dissolved minerals or electrolytes that our bodies need. So we have to treat it to add those things. But everyone who comes here should taste the pure stuff once.

Showers: because it takes energy to melt this 2,000 year old ice, and eventually the Rodwell will have to be relocated to another spot on the ice, we conserve as much as possible. A two-minute shower means two minutes of running water. We can stay in the shower as long as we like, but we can only run the water for two minutes. The rest of the time we are wet and freezing. We wet ourselves down and freeze while we lather up. Then rinse off and freeze while we do it again. Then we freeze as we get out of the shower to dry off. Although the bathrooms at the Pole are the same temperature as the rest of the station - between 62 and 68 degrees - the baths have higher ventilation rates so there is a constant breeze - Brrrr.   Note to NSF: heat lamps in the shower stalls!

There are, however, techniques for not freezing to death. And no, we don't wear our ECW into the showers.  We get 2 showers a week, so if you only take one shower you can take a four-minute shower! Wow. Also, if you turn the water down so it is trickling out the shower head at half flow you can double that to eight minutes! The half-flow trick is a very good one because that little bit of constant warm water also keeps you warm(ish) for the whole shower.

Getting out of the shower into the 65 degree air of the room is a different story - I have found no solution.  See previous note to NSF.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lights out at Pole, or... Gen 2, Our Hero.

So far this winter we have had two adrenaline pumping events.  This week we had number three.  In late evening the station went dark.  And quiet.  Power for the station went off  unexpectedly and turned off all lights, electrical equipment, fans, air handlers, everything.  We later learned that power across the main station buss was zero - not enough to light a flashlight bulb.  I was in my room at the time and transitioned instantly from being in a nice book reading mood to being in a totally dark, scarily quiet environment.  Then the alarms started going off.  I don’t know if you have ever tried to find your clothes, shoes and radio in complete darkness while your heart rate is increasing by the second, but it isn’t easy.
Big deal, right?  Our power went off.  Happens all the time at your house.  Well, our power keeps us alive.  At -94F outside it wouldn’t take long for us to get very cold.  If our power is off it means our generators are probably off and not only will there be no electricity there will be no waste heat to warm the station.  We have five generators but one of those is usually undergoing maintenance and not available, and another in the Emergency Power Plant (EPP) sets off the sprinklers whenever it is started because the heat from its exhaust manifold heats the sprinkler head directly above it.  We know that because it happened last summer.  The EPP was inches deep in water and all the engineers were soaking wet.   I wish I had seen it.  So if we have to activate the emergency power plant we have two choices: get emergency generator A started or start generator B which will set off the sprinklers and exhaust all our fire-fighting water in about five minutes.  In my mind that is a design flaw, but hey, who am I to say? Just my opinion. Not criticizing.
Luckily one of the off-line generators in the main power plant (Gen 2) did exactly as it was supposed to do and started itself about fifteen long seconds after Gen 1 failed.  Still, what was going on in the power plant?  No one had heard from them.  People were standing in the hallways of the main station wide-eyed and wondering what was happening.  Being Safety on station, I put on my ECW gear and headed down to the Power Plant, trying to guess what might have happened.  Was it a fire?  No, the alarms were system failure alarms and not fire alarms (and from the previous scary event we know the fire alarms in the Power Plant work just fine).  What was happening?  As it turned out it was not too bad.

I learned that our old friend Gen 1 had overheated and shut herself down.  Since she was supplying all the station's power at the time, everything went black.  Regular readers will know that a few months ago Gen 1 set off all the fire alarms in the Power Plant, causing a station-wide emergency response when the Power Plant was filled with steam and coolant vapor.  Gen 1 is definitely on our  #$%^ list for the winter.  No one has figured out why, but Gen 1 apparently overheats at random intervals and shuts itself down. It did the same thing twice last summer.  Gen 2 however, is our hero. She started for both emergency events this winter and re-supplied the station with power on both occasions. And she doesn’t even set off the sprinklers.  Go Gen 2!

This is Gen 1...  

and this is Gen 2... our Hero. (She was dripping a little oil on the day this picture was taken- sort of like a bad hair day for generators).  As you can tell they are twins - just evil twin and good twin.

The third twin, Gen 3, doesn't get her picture posted because she sat through both emergencies and did absolutely nothing.  Nada.  She wouldn't start on the first one and was off-line for maintenance during the second.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My brain at 11,600 feet

After two weeks of nice low altitudes around 10,200 feet, the South Pole decided enough was enough.  Over the last 24 hours a storm system has dropped the barometric pressure enough to equal a physiologcal altitude of 11,600 feet.  This isn’t the highest altitude we’ve seen this winter (but almost), but it has been the fastest onset.  The saying here is “The South Pole can kick your butt anytime it wants to”, and I’m a true believer.  Whether it is the dark, cold to below -100, windchills well below that, blowing snow and zero visibility, frostbite, sastrugi that have to be climbed over rather than stepped over - the Pole has a wide range of options on kicking butt.  This week SP dipped into the hat and drew out… altitude.

The effect on personnel is noticable.  I become out of breath just from walking down the hallway.  Shovel snow? You must be joking.  Work becomes much more difficult and rest stops become pathetically close together.  Last week I could climb the six-story beer can from bottom to top without stopping to rest – today I had to stop three times.  Sleep is disrupted and although I am exhausted, I really don’t sleep much – just in short snatches.  Climbing into my raised bunk means a few seconds of gasping for breath at the top.  Headaches – yep.  Difficulty in forming complex thoughts – yep.  Loss of appetite – yep.  Lethargy – yep.  In fact, I am wondering if it is really worth finishing this post.

I am sure it was the sudden onset of the low pressure storm that is causing all these symptoms.  I can tell a difference in all the station personnel, and everyone here is moving much slower.  If the altitude stays at this level for a few days our bodies will adapt some, but in the meantime this is my brain on no oxygen.

Last week, when there was a reasonable amount of oxygen for me to breath, I took this picture of an aurora. Click it for a larger version with all the stars. That's Jupiter at the lower left, just above the barely discernable horizon.  Enjoy.