Moai on Easter Island

Moai on Easter Island

Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Never Want To Be A Polar Explorer

Hanging off the bottom of the world

The pilots checked the weather every morning for days before we actually flew out to the field sight.  The weather forecast came from Charleston, SC.  We had a secret weapon against the forecast.  We had a weather station and a webcam at the field sight.  Every morning the Charleston forecast said it was windy and cloudy; every morning our weather station and webcam showed almost no wind and completely clear skies. 

South Pole Station from the Twin Otter

The problem was the refueling depot called AGAP South.  The weather was often good there, but the Charleston forecast usually shows that this area is clouded in too.

With good webcam images and a cloudy and windy forecast flying that day was finally seriously considered.  As we sat there drinking coffee and eating the same exact South Pole breakfast of eggs and bacon and hash browns that we had eaten for weeks Craig asked me about setting up tents in the forecasted 30 mph winds.  I said it wouldn’t be fun, but we could do it—mainly just because I was tired of sitting at the Pole and couldn’t wait to get into the field.  This was a conversation that we would remember while our fingers and toes were freezing for the next week or so.

Typical view at Ridge A

We got on the plane and 4 hours of flat white nothingness later we landed at Ridge A.  The flag next to our pile of cargo was flapping wildly.  The plane engines were still running so I assumed the flags were just catching the prop wash.   The pilots turned off the engines and came around to open the back door of the plane and the flag did not stop flapping.  With a grimace our pilot Darren said, “Well Charleston was right.”  John got out of the plane about 30 seconds before I did.  I stepped down the ladder onto the cold ground and noticed his nose.  It was white—already frost nipped.  That’s when it hit me that this was the real deal.  A few days later we got the data from the weather station and the temperature when we landed was -80*F.

The camp we built at Ridge A.  The orange tent on the right houses the radio telescope.  The white tent is the instrument module and the green module in the back is there the fuel and generators are.

 I wouldn’t go back for the life of me, but I’m glad I made it out to the Antarctic plateau.  I began to get used to everything being completely frozen and sleeping with batteries and everything else that I didn’t want to freeze with me inside my sleeping bag.  Every drop of water froze when it left the kettle.  I couldn’t touch anything metal without gloves on.  I have stood in one of the most remote places on earth and somehow, even if only momentarily, felt at home.  But I will never ever go back.

Flight back to the Pole

Countless hours were spent digging drifts out of the runway.

Our highest temperature at Ridge A was -24*F.  That felt warm at the time.  After nine days in the field we landed back at the South Pole.  I was hoping that is would feel warm.  I figured after that long at Ridge A I was toughened up and could handle the cold.  It was still -20*F at the Pole and it was still freezing.  A few days ago I finally made it back to McMurdo and it is +28*F.  It feels cold.   The cold has sunk in and will probably stay for the next 8 months down here.  Luckily there is a warm building with a warm bed to crawl into every night.  The first official day of winter is less than a month away.  I feel like my 26 days at the South Pole and Ridge A have stolen a big part of my Antarctic summer.  It is still sunny, but the air feels like it is on a cooling trend.  The days are getting colder and shorter to slowly ease us into winter.

Somewhere between Ridge A and Pole

Hopefully for to New Zealand tomorrow for a week of R&R before the winter.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ridge A Field Site

I've been to some pretty remote places before, but I think this one is the winner.  A flight went to Ridge A from the South Pole today to bring in all of our food and fuel and field camp gear.  Hopefully in the next day or so I'll get to fly out there for a week.

X marks our field site

Monday, January 14, 2013

Link to Science Group's Blog

For some more detail on what the group that I am with is doing right now check out their blog for another side of the story:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

South Pole Markers

There are three different markers at the South Pole.  Of course nothing in the US Antarctic Program is efficient so there certainly has to be more than one South Pole marker.

There is the ceremonial Pole marker.  This is the mirrored ball with all the flags around it.  

Ceremonial Pole marker with the station in the background.

Then there is the geographical Pole marker.  Why the ceremonial Pole marker isn't at the true South Pole I'll never know.  This marker is moved back to the true South Pole every January 1st because the ice sheet moves about 30 feet every year.  They make a new marker every year.  This year's marker has the sun, moon and planets on top of it...Pluto is on the bottom. 

Geographic South Pole marker
Sitting between the other two Pole markers is a little wooden stake.  It has "2013 Pole Marker" written on with a sharpie. No one seems to know why this one is here.  I guess it is just another one of the great mysteries of Antarctica.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Still at the South Pole

The South Pole Station came alive around 9:30 tonight.  Snow machines were buzzing around and large forklifts were moving pallets of outbound cargo closer to the snowy runway.   Inside the station about a dozen people in big red jackets were glued to the windows waiting for the plane to come out of the clouds.  This was their flight home.  Some were sad to leave for the season and others could not wait to get the hell out of this middle of nowhere dot on the map.  The LC-130 that was supposed to arrive two days ago was delayed until 8pm today and then delayed again until 10pm. 

LC-130 (Ski-equipped Hercules) on the runway at the South Pole
Flights are scheduled to come into Pole almost every day or at least every other day.  But this flight was carrying a few special items that we have been anticipating…one we’ve been waiting on for weeks.   Flights are also supposed to go between McMurdo and Christchurch every day.  But mechanical issues and more recently a melting runway have thwarted many of these flights throughout the continent this year.  The Pegasus “Ice Runway” in McMurdo is a slushy mess on the Ross Ice Shelf.  With temps in McMurdo as high as 40*F the runway is hardly usable.  Many flights have been canceled and the flights that do run are reduced to a minuscule payload.  The normal one-hour drive to the runway has turned into a three-hour adventure where vans are put on “magic carpets” (giant plastic mats) and then pulled by large tracked vehicles across the slushy lake that used to be an ice road. 

The research group that I am out here working with is going to replace a radio telescope high on the Antarctica Plateau.  For weeks this telescope has been sitting in Christchurch waiting to get on a plane.  Luckily in the last few days it has made it onto the continent and just arrived at the South Pole two hours ago.   We’ve been delayed for almost two weeks and now things can finally get moving forward.  We may be able to put in our field camp at a location called Ridge A at 13,300 feet in one of the most remote places on earth in just a few days.  What a big relief for this whole group.  Most the crew is asleep and will wake up to a nice surprise in the morning.

Taking off over the rows of cargo and supplies at the South pole
Another thing that arrived on this flight was a bit of mail for me.  I just opened some delayed Christmas gifts from my family at the South Pole!  As you can imagine there isn’t much to do here, so this was a great surprise and made my week. 

The last long awaited thing coming in on this flight was a psychologist….Why the hell am I so excited for a psychologist to be here?

To winter-over in Antarctica I had to do some more blood tests and a chest X-ray and go through a psychological exam.  I took the written portion of this exam a few weeks ago when I was still in McMurdo.  It was roughly 500 questions asking if I hear voices in my head and whether or not I avoid the cracks in the sidewalk.  The last portion is a 1 on 1 interview with the psychologist.  It is a good thing the telescope has been delayed for so long otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to be here for this interview and therefore wouldn’t have been able to spend the winter at McMurdo.  Sometime tomorrow I’ll do this final interview.

Wish me luck!

Yep, still here...

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Bottom of the World

I really can hardly imagine where I am.  I’ve seen the X on a map of the South Pole.  It is in the middle of a blank white spot on the continent.   I haven’t see it on a globe because the axis is always poking out at the Pole. 

Getting on the LC-130
Not too far from McMurdo

There is a reason it is a big blank spot on the map.  There is nothing here.  A few buildings and telescopes and antennas and cargos lines full of random stuff waiting years to get flown or drug behind a tractor back to McMurdo.

Ceremonial South Pole marker
Ceremonial Pole marker and the station in the background
I've never been in a place so flat and full of nothing.  There is nothing but a flat white horizon for 360 degrees.  It's been around -11*F the last few days with wind chills down to -33*F or so.  I'll just start to get used to the cold before I head higher [and much colder] on the Antarctic Plateau to help a group fix a radio telescope.  The Pole is at 9,300 feet, but the pressure altitude is around 10,000 feet.  Quite a big jump from sea level.  

Inside the station
South Pole Station
Compared to everything else I've seen in Antarctica it isn't much to see, but it is a cool experience nonetheless.  Like I've said before there is something alluring about the white nothingness.  

Typical view

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Years from Antarctica

Well the world didn’t end on the 21st.  I guess it was because no one could decide on the actual time it was supposed to happen.  Was it supposed to be 12:00am on the 21st or some random time during the day or at 11:59pm?  If there were such a consensus on that surely nothing would exist right now. 

McMurdo from a helicopter
ince the new year came here in Antarctica three quarters of a day sooner than it did back in the States I want to throw out an early happy new years to everyone back home.  Unlike last year I’m not drinking champagne down by the river in Missoula with KT and Lanie, trying to figure out if it is actually the new year yet and yelling out in joy when the UM clock chimed 12 times.   I’m looking out my window right now at a stage being set up for a big line-up of local bands for tonight.  New years was celebrated with the IceStock music festival.  I never thought I'd be wearing sunglasses for a new years countdown. 

McMurdo & Mt Erebus from a helicopter

Since the new year came here in Antarctica three quarters of a day sooner than it did back in the States I want to throw out an early happy new years to everyone back home.  Unlike last year I’m not drinking champagne down by the river in Missoula with KT and Lanie, trying to figure out if it is actually the new year yet and yelling out in joy when the UM clock chimed 12 times.   I’m looking out my window right now at a stage being set up for a big line-up of local bands for tonight.  New years was celebrated with the Icestock music festival.  I never thought I'd be wearing sunglasses for a new years countdown.

The beginning of Icestock from my dorm window
Just another new experience in this town that I’m staying in for a year.  Yes, a whole year!  I know that’s going to really surprise some people that I’m staying in one place for so long.  But it won’t surprise others that I chose such a strange place to make my home for these 12 months.

Tomorrow morning I get on a ski equipped C-130 and fly to the South Pole for a few weeks.  I'm trading in the warm and melting sea ice for freezing cold temps and completely flat white views.  Off to the bottom of the world...