Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fuel Pit (Warning - acronym alert)

We are setting up what is called the Fuel Pit tomorrow.  This is the area on the station, next to the ice runway,  that is involved with fueling and defueling planes during the summer.  Because the fuel pit is not needed in winter all the buildings, fuel tanks and fuel lines are taken to a remote part of the station until right before the summer season starts.  If they had been left where they were huge drifts would form behind them and be difficult to clear right about now.  The assemblage of buildings and tanks includes the AFM (Aircraft Fueling Module) that contains the pumps, valves and controls that allow the fuel to be sent to where it is needed; the PAX terminal where people can wait in a heated area when departing; several 5k and 10k gallon fuel tanks, the BARFF (Building - Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting), and all the piping, fuel lines and electrical utilities needed to run everything.  Everything has to be dragged from remote parts of the station.  All this is quite an undertaking and should take most of the day.  But when it is finished we will almost be ready to receive airplanes at South Pole.

I'll try to take some pictures of all these activities but it is still in the -70's so it is hard to keep the camera warm (much less my fingers and poor frostbitten nose).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

This week at Pole

We didn’t get any snow shoveled last week as we wanted to.  It was too cold and windy, and the dozer did not get to all the buildings to clear the massive parts of the drifts away.  Maybe this week.  We still have two weeks to get it done but it would be hard to do all of them in the last few days.

We had our next to last emergency response drill yesterday.  It took about five times longer to plan it than to execute.  It was a vehicle fire with an injured driver.  The teams have gotten much better over the winter because this time there was no fuss, no muss and the injured person was in medical within ten minutes, and the “fire” in the vehicle put out in about 15 minutes from the first call-in.  No one realized it until later, but this drill was essentially the same as the first drill of the season, which was very uncoordinated with a lot of mistakes.  I was afraid that this drill was way too simple based on the increasingly difficult and challenging drills of the winter, but it turned out to be a good indicator of how much progress the ERT teams have made since January. 

This week I finished an article for the Raytheon internal newspaper, PS News, about safety planning this winter at Pole.  We have not had a single accident this year, which is unusual.  We have a very good crew and I attribute the safe operations to it being a somewhat older average age than normal.  I think the average age is in the low 30’s when it is usually in the mid 20’s.  Supervisors are also very safety conscious this year and discuss the risks of jobs in advance with their employees.  This has really helped prevent accidents this winter.  I’ll post the article here next week. 

Snow clearing by the heavy equipment operator continues this week.  The housing units called Jamesways have to be cleared of snow before we can shovel and start up the heaters.  A snow-grooming device called the goose, which is pulled behind a dozer to level sastrugi (drifts) is being brought online this week.  It has been sitting outside all winter and has to have two portable diesel-powered heaters running to warm its articulating parts before it can be moved.  There was some sort of mistake made in warming vehicles which put everything back a day when the snow-clearing was behind anyway.  Tempers are a bit short because the heavy equipment operators and the VMF (vehicle maintenance shop) are working very hard and for long hours these days, and the weather has not been cooperating.

Science teams made a successful inspection and calibration trip to the ESPRESSO experiment, which is about 3.5 km from the station.  That doesn’t sound far, but at these temperatures it is a risky trip.  They took survival gear and extra food in case the vehicle broke down in the cold and they had to wait for rescue.

We are starting to do the things that will get us back to civilization in a few weeks.  We are making travel arrangements and taking steps to get all our ECW gear back to the clothing distribution center in Christchurch. Still it is a little early for that because it is still cold here and we need it!  The logistics people have developed a way we can turn it all in here at Pole and it gets shipped back to Christchurch without us having to carry it on the plane individually.  That will be great.

The Sun is well above the horizon now – about three fingers.  Real shadows and a lot of contrast, and very bright.

It is now only 16 days before the new station management arrives for the summer and the winter season officially ends.  My replacement is supposed to arrive on October 25th, twenty-six days from now.  I will stay almost two weeks after that since my departure date is November 7.  I will be one of the last winterovers to leave South Pole.

UPDATE:  Things are very fluid here.  My replacement is now scheduled to arrive on October 19 or 20, and my re-deployment date is probably going to be moved up to around November 1. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Changes: Temperature and Mood

What a difference 12 hours makes.  From -96F yesterday at 3 pm the temperature rose to -44F at 3 am this morning.  That was a temperature change of +52 degrees.  That’s pretty impressive anywhere.  At my house that would be like going from 32F at 6am to 84F at  6pm.  The reason for this sudden warmth was a storm that approached Pole from Grid 316, which is very rare (Grid 0 is toward Greenwich).  So we have what we call “west” winds. There are clouds and ice fog here that are acting like a blanket to keep temperatures high near the ice.  But our meteorologist says things will be back to normal in a couple of days with temps in the -80’s.

The sunrise has made a lot of difference in everyone’s outlook here, and not always for the better.  After a brief lift in mood the sun gave us, everyone seems to be in a downward mood swing, including myself.  The theory here is that when the sun comes up people start thinking it is time to go home when in fact we have six to seven weeks left.  Some people even started packing with the sunrise.  I have to admit to being easily annoyed by people over the past week or two.  I will sit next to someone in the galley and they will start talking about the same topic they have been talking about for the last six months and it is like the air is deflated from the table.  You realize you made a mistake by sitting there but you are trapped.  You can’t just get up and move to another table because that would be obvious and rude.  So I find myself taking the safe route and sitting by myself more and more during meals.  Yesterday I was talking to someone at 6 am in the galley and when I sat down to dinner at 5 pm the person was saying exactly the same thing.  You have no idea how irritating and annoying that can be after being here for 8 months.

Low temperatures over the last two weeks (near -100F) has kept us from doing a lot of station opening tasks we had scheduled – so we are behind.  With only 2 ½ weeks before the first Basler flight we need to get out there and start shoveling snow so we can re-heat the buildings.  The engineering and maintenance group had opened several buildings last week and started the furnaces in them, but the extreme cold of -98F over the weekend gelled all the fuel so the furnaces shut off.  All those buildings now have to be heated all over again, starting with portable heating units that warm the buildings enough to start the furnaces.

So this week I will start shoveling out the doorways and furnace units to the three buildings I have been assigned.  But if we have another storm over the next few weeks I will have to shovel them again.  I hope not.

Monday, September 20, 2010

You are Here!

Due to satellite problems this was posted  a day late, sunrise is today!
The week at Pole - you are there!

If you were here what do you think you would be doing this week? Well, probably a lot of snow shoveling. The Jamesways and other buildings outside have been cleared of snow by the D-6 bulldozer, so the snow that is left blocking doors is now removable by mere human beings with shovels. I'm going to wait until late in the week to do my shoveling because there is another storm system approaching and I do not want to shovel snow twice when new drifts form.

Winter snow buildup at the front of the station.  At the beginning of winter there was no snowbank and the walk was level to the plateau.  The area under the station is kept free of snow by the winds that are channeled under the station.  Wind speed under the station is typically twice what it is around the station.

If you had my job you would be doing water testing this week to make sure the water is safe to drink. Some locations we have to test monthly and some weekly. I am going to be doing both this week. You would also be constructing mock-ups of some safety devices to be used on a conveyor system in the Logistics Arch. These are to keep pallets from rotating on the conveyor and injuring the people who have to move them. We designed the safety changes over the winter and now it is up to the summer people to install them. We did not have enough materials on-hand to do it ourselves this winter.  And of course there is the end of season report of all the ups and downs, good and bad of the winter.

You would also be doing house-mouse duties on Monday. House mouse is when everyone at the station takes an hour and cleans a part of the station. Bathrooms, the library, gym, weight room, outside stairs, etc. These duties rotate, so this week my team and I cleaned the quiet reading room and the computer room. These are all easy jobs except for shoveling the snow off the outside stairs, which can be very difficult in total darkness, wind, cold and altitude. At least it is light now and that makes everything easier.

If you worked in the vehicle maintenance facility (VMF) you would be preparing for a major unexpected job. The D-7 dozer's transmission failed over the weekend and the dozer will not move. As the manager of the VMF says, "The engine runs but the scenery doesn't change."  It has to be pushed into the VMF arch by another dozer were it is warm so the transmission can be taken out, diagnosed and repaired. It will take two days sitting inside before it is warm enough even to touch.  It looks to be about a two-week job and was totally unexpected work. But the big dozer is needed and it has to get done. There are safety issues with this job, so if you were me you would be involved in the "pushing it into the VMF" part of the operation on Wednesday.

If you are one of the science guys you are probably completing the final steps of switching over equipment from dark experiments to daylight experiments. You are also going to be going out to SPRESSO, a science site 3 km away from the station to do one of it's twice-yearly inspections. This is a significant trip because 3 km is out of sight of the main station and a vehicle breakdown would be a serious event. In a normal environment 3 km (less than two miles) would be an easy walk, but you would be unlikely to make it back to the station if you tried to walk it here. So you would be taking survival bags, rations, extra radio batteries, and checking in with the station frequently just in case. If your vehicle broke you would set up a tent or a snow shelter and stay put until rescued.  It is still 92 below out there even if there is daylight.

If you were the station meteorologist you would start to launch extra weather balloons this week to provide weather data for C-17 flights into McMurdo for that station's official summer opening. If you were a power plant tech you would be switching over from generator 2 to generator 3 this week, as well as doing your normal rounds every two hours. The facility engineering department will be testing the emergency power plant this week  - starting it up, powering some of the station with emergency power and then shutting it down.  The maintenance people (facilities engineering), will also be doing normal maintenance and repair work this week. They are the busiest people on station so it would just be another busy week for you if you were a plumber, electrician, carpenter or general assistant. If you were in Logistics you would be, as usual, counting stuff.

If you were a heavy equipment operator you would be spending most of your week clearing snow drifts from buildings and repositioning things to get ready for the station opening next month. You would have been moving emergency fuel tanks from the end of the world, but the D-7 is broken so that will not be happening. In a couple of weeks you would be using the repaired D-7 to clear and smooth the ice runway (called the skiway) so planes can land.

But mostly, mostly, you would be spending a lot of time daydreaming about that LC-130 flight out of here when your replacement arrives, and the springtime weather of Christchurch, NZ that waits for you. Oh, and today you would be waiting for sunrise, tomorrow!

Pre-dawn light at the South Pole.  Sunrise was still about two weeks in the future when this photo was taken.  This was bright and beautiful after six months of darkness, but signaled  the end for the auroras.

Friday, September 17, 2010


The mood of the station has really changed a lot in the past three weeks.  The Sun is just below the horizon and the sky has turned blue.  Everyone is looking forward to what they will do when we get off the ice.  The first plane in eight months is due to arrive on October 15 and with them they will bring new people and new germs.  I'm not looking forward to the new people, even though there will only be eighteen of them on the Basler.

They are going to be all be excited, talkative and loud, all gung-ho and industrious... grrrr. Things at the Pole for the winter-overs have become a quiet, routine relaxed and efficient at getting the job done.  They are going to want to talk to us and we are not going to want to talk to them, eat with them or otherwise associate with their germs.  No one has been sick here for months and it never fails that the germs brought in by the new people may make many of us sick.  Coughing, sore throats and sniffles here we are, defenseless and weak - come and get us, bugs.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Live SP Web Cam

The live SP web cam is back up and running after being taken inside for the winter (thanks, Nick at ARO).  So if you want to see what it looks like out our windows right this minute, click on the SP Web Cam link to the left.