Saturday, January 14, 2012

Yuri Night...

Every year on Yuri Gagarin's birthday, a group of winter-over Polies make the trek to the geographical South Pole and give him a toast. Winter 2010 was no exception so ten of us walked to the South Pole in the darkening skies of early winter.

Heading to the Pole to toast Yuri.

Making the toast.  Station manager Mel McMahon made a short speech and than we all toasted Yuri. Vodka is the drink of choice for this ceremony. Actually drinking anything outdoors at these temperatures is problematic. Cold liquid, 70 below temperatures, wind, cold cups on lips. Although many did make the toast, I hope Yuri won't mind that I brought an empty glass and made a symbolic toast to Earth's first man in space.

Things never to do at South Pole...

Never leave your camera unattended where the Polies can get to it.  Otherwise you are likely to find some "funny pictures" on it!

Actually, I am being made fun of and chastised in these pictures because I did something with a flashlight during our group picture a few weeks earlier.  Luckily I did not entirely ruin the group picture session or I would have had 46 Polies pretty mad at me because they would have had to go outside in the cold again to do it all over.

Another Emergency Fuel Tank Video

Another emergency fuel tank relocation video.  Read the previous post to see why this is being done.  This is one of the five tanks pulled from the End of the World to the main station near the end of the 2010 winter season.  As you can tell it was a typical windy day at South Pole.  At the end of the video we follow the D7 Caterpillar in the LMC tracked vehicle to a warming station.  The heater in the D7 dozer is not strong enough to keep the driver warm in South Pole conditions, so periodically he has to stop at a warming station where a portable heater can warm the cab.  As you will see this particular heater is named "YOKO".

This video has better views of the station and "backyard" area in the pre-sunrise light.  Sunrise is still a week or more away and temperatures are warming but still pretty cold (between -70F and -60F).  The lighted building to the left as the LMC approaches YOKO that looks like it is in a hole is the VMF  (Vehicle Maintenance Facility).  The entrance can only be reached down a snow ramp that has to be kept cleared. The VMF was built several years ago on the surface of the ice, but has gradually become buried by drifting snow during the Antarctic winters. These days a ramp to surface level has to be kept clear so the equipment can be brought into and out of the structure. The vapor you see coming from the area to the left of the VMF is from the power plant exhausts.  The exhaust is actually very clean, but the warm air meeting the cold Antarctic air produces an impressive vapor cloud. Technically that vapor cloud is really an aerosol cloud of microscopic ice crystals since the water vapor freezes almost instantly after leaving the stacks.

The day looks very light in the video because of the camera's exposure settings, but it was actually quite a bit darker. I apologize for the video ending so abruptly, my camera ran out of video memory.

Emergency Fuel Tank Moving

During the next few weeks I will be posting some videos and still pictures of life at the South Pole during the 2010 winter.  The first of these is the repositioning of fuel tanks from the End of the World to nearer the station at the end of the season.  This video was taken on September 9th, 2010 and shows one of the fuel tanks being positioned near the station.  There was still about 45 days before warmer temperatures would bring the first flight since the previous February. Over the next week the fuel in this and other tanks that are brought to the station will be pumped into the station's main fuel storage tanks in the fuel arch.  The outside temperature is failry warm at this time (compared to the deep winter temperatures of only a few weeks earlier), and is probably around -65F.  You can tell it is warm(ish) because the people positioning the tanks have bare skin exposed.

The emergency fuel tanks are on sleds and are stored as far away from the station as is practical during the winter, at a location called End of the World.  This is done to divide the station's fuel into two groups so that a major disaster cannot destroy all of the station's fuel. The emergency fuel tanks had been dug out from winter snowdrifts the previous day. The full tanks shown here will be emptied and then refilled during the summer with fuel brought in during normal replenishing operations.  They will then be put back at the End of the World prior to the 2011 winter.

During the fuel transfer itself a great deal of attention is given to making sure not a drop of fuel spills onto the ice. All exterior valves, connectors and fittings are wrapped in absorbent pads in case there is even a small drip from the very cold connectors.  Transfer operations are monitored by people at the tanks, inside the pumping station, inside the station, and at the fuel arch to make sure there are no spills or accidents.

Below is a photo of the fuel arch where the station's fuel is stored. The fuel we pump from the emergency fuel tanks ends up in these tanks. The curved roof makes up the arch which is now below the snow surface. When originally constructed the arch was on the surface as were these fuel tanks. Now they are several feet under the ice and getting further buried each winter. These large fuel tanks replaced rubber fuel bladders that used to hold the station's fuel. Everything, including the tanks, was flown in on LC-130 aircraft over many summers.

Above is how the tanks are monitored for fuel level.  This area is always at 70 below, even during the summer. This is very cold work because personnel must come in contact with the cold metal of the tanks and their supporting structure. Each active tank is manually dipped and measured daily to make sure there is the expected amount of fuel in it.  High or low levels would mean that something unexpected has happened.   That is James Travis (JT3) dipping the tank.