Thursday, February 22, 2007

Homeward Bound

Glacial flow seen en-route north to McMurdo

Latest photo set

Once again rattling north on the Tranz Scenic train from Christchurch to Picton. I have just a few days in New Zealand due to the restricted availability of flights out of Auckland (I had to choose to leave Friday or be stuck in NZ several more days). Across from me is colleague Dave reading in the Christchurch edition of The Press, about the exodus of Ice people flooding into town, and of New Zealand's upset victory against Australia in cricket last night, which we watched from our restaurant booth downtown. Colleague Mark, who had explained the finer points of US Super Bowl tactics at Pole to me at Pole, grew up in Scotland (somehow retaining not even the merest trace of an accent) and managed to acquire an uncanny skill at darts, pool, ping pong, lawn bowling, golf... seemingly any sport involving directing matter into targets of various sorts. Fitting, somehow, for a physicist. He gave us a detailed explanation of the rules of cricket, to the point where we not only could follow what was going on, but were on the edges of our seats at the end of the game when New Zealand prevailed in the last few pitches of the final over.

There are a nearly infinite number of things to do in New Zealand involving outdoor activities in incredible scenery (bungee jumping, hiking, swimming with dolphins, riding helicopters atop glaciers, filming adaptations of Tolkein stories, etc., etc.) but I keep returning to the train + ferry combination up to Wellington - a soothing way of passing a day sliding past a good chunk of typically gorgeous NZ landscape - mountains, farmlands, coastlines and open water. A sort of gradual Northwards decompression after the dry frenzy of seemingly endless effort and sleep deprivation on-station. Post-Ice, I always seem to become afflicted with a paradoxical combination of intense lethargy and buzzing creativity which I actually enjoy quite a bit. We'll see if it goes anywhere productive after I return home this weekend.

I wrote down some goals at the beginning of the trip and I do want to have a short reckoning of how things went. Work-wise the trip was a qualified success. We incorporated all 22 IceCube strings plus the IceTop surface array into the new DAQ. The software itself is limping along (requiring babysitting from the winter-overs and by the three of us as we gravitate Northwards) but it feels somehow more in hand than last year – we shall see. Team interactions were fruitful and good-natured and I feel there is a good foundation going forward for the next few months of troubleshooting.

Personally, the upside was that, a few headaches aside, I managed to stay healthy throughout the trip (possibly a first for me) and maintained a workout schedule throughout, getting my high-altitude mile time down to 8:43 and logging as many as five miles a day on the treadmill. Daily work with weights helped counter the punishing schedule at the keyboard. On the downside, meditation and drawing practices went down the tubes and stayed there. Oh well. Also failed to finish Gravity's Rainbow and to return it to its rightful place on the shelves of the station's Quiet Reading Room – but I'm still enjoying it so I have borrowed it for a second time. Perhaps I'll send it South when I'm done with it. I have until November before the mail starts up again.

The main thing, of course, is that everyone got in and out safely, something I do not take for granted. I expect it's fairly safe to travel on the Ice but I am mindful that I am carrying in my luggage pieces of an LC-130 that crashed at South Pole (with no serious injury or loss of life, I should add). When we were first scheduled for the Soft Close there was talk of taking us out in Twin Otter aircraft after the Air Guard stopped flying. That would have taken us to Patriot Hills and then up through Tierra del Fuego – how we would have gotten home after that I have no idea; there certainly would have been no stopover in Wellington on the way home (anyone for Panama City? Rio?). The Otters are small aircraft with a shorter range than the 130s, requiring stopovers at fuel depots along the way (thoughts of landing at unmanned stations literally in the middle of Antarctica appealed to my adventurous side but the obvious added risk did give me pause). In the end the nominal Soft Close bought us only an extra two hours spent nursing DAQ along and eating hot cinnamon buns from the galley (a last-minute contribution from the departing breakfast chef) before we were serenaded off by one of the winter crew members playing saxophone as we filed out of the station into -80F wind chills and piled into our Herc. A combination of rapid temperature drops, logistics and, undoubtedly, opaque and mysterious Ice politics got us out of there, in the end, earlier than expected – so here I am in a train being jostled soothingly, watching dolphins jump off shore, rather than banging away at the software with a few winter-overs hungry to be rid of us and to begin their long hunkering-down for the winter.

Scenes from the straight-through flight to Christchurch

Saxophone serenade - so long, Summer.

The last flight (ours!) to leave South Pole until October.

View en route to McMurdo.

Our ride from Pegasus field near McMurdo to Christchurch.

First sunset in three weeks

"Big Red," the familiar parka, is surprisingly comfortable to sleep in.

Schlepping ECW gear to passport control, customs, and check-in at CDC.

More from this photo set

Monday, February 19, 2007


Redeployment is the military term for leaving wherever you were. I've always thought it was an odd term: it sounds like you can never go home, you just get re-deployed somewhere else.

Fortunately in my case I have been re-deployed to Christchurch, home of cabbage trees, running water, ducks, Scottish shuttle drivers, lawn bowling (I could, and might, write a whole blog post about how fun lawn bowling is!); fresh juice, Indian food; warm, fragrant air, and, unfortunately, too many damn Ice people, tourists, etc. making it hard to come by hotel rooms and flights home. When we arrived late last night I discovered that my darkest dreams had manifested into horrid reality: I had been billeted in a motel out by the airport rather than downtown.

After passing an extremely abbreviated night's sleep I did manage to find rooms tonight and tomorrow in separate hotels on Armagh, tiding me over until I leave for Wellington on Wednesday. I had similar trouble getting a flight home from Aukland to LA - I'm leaving NZ two days earlier than planned... the alternative was staying another five days!

These logistical hurdles sorted out, I can enjoy a few days of summer before heading home to the apparently still-frozen midwest.

I will try to write about yesterday's trip, a very long day (a real day, ending in night!) - and I have lots of pictures which I will put up. But it's time to go eat Indian food with my colleagues.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


After a few false alarms yesterday, we are scheduled today on the 1PM flight to McMurdo. Temperature is -52F, -77 with windchill.

After working 19 days straight and shifting to a day schedule to sync up with the Real World(TM), I was so exhausted last night all I could do was play pool, watch Fifth Element in the video lounge, and crash. Now I'm ready to pack up. I could be breathing Christchurch air tonight!

All-call just announced the first flight launched an hour early - they want to get us out of here!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Cleanest Air in the World

Your intrepid author collects his own air sample from the top floor of the Clean Air Building.

Well, still no confirmation of whether we're getting pulled out tomorrow. Apparently they want to fly everyone out, even the so-called "soft closers," because it's getting colder fast, but the weather forecast for McMurdo calls for snow and poor visibility. So, we'll see. We might all be stuck until Sunday or later. We can use the time here but I'm getting toasty [Ice slang for Ice burnout] about as quickly as the mercury falls.

But tonight, we had a real treat - a tour of the Clean Air Facility (see photos). South Pole (upwind of the station) has the cleanest air in the world, and there is an entire building devoted to its study. Not surprisingly, two of the most prominent measurements are ozone concentration and CO2 concentration. South Pole is one of five similar clean-air stations spread from north to south, from here to Barrows, Alaska, where CO2 measurements have been taken for several decades and show an inexorable and dramatic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. We saw how they do the measurement. The ozone measurement was also very interesting technically, and the explanation for the ozone hole, while too lengthy to recount here, is fascinating. At the end we got to collect our own sealed samples of The Cleanest Air in the World - a souvenir to put over the fireplace, though seeing the carbon curves does dampen my enthusiasm for lighting any fires.

Scenery on the way to the Clean Air building.

Laser for LIDAR measurements of high-altitude cloud formations.

Seven -, count them seven-paned windows on the second floor.

Fifties-era flasks still used for air sampling. Apparently measuring CO2 concentrations back then was considered somewhat silly; now it's probably the most important measurement done at South Pole (my opinion).

Guest book for Distinguished Visitors (DVs), including Sen. McCain, who apparently gets the global warming thing and commented to the other DVs last year, "See? See? I told you," during their version of the same tour we had today.

Other, less-distinguished visitors.

Our home, for a few more hours at least...

More photos

Friday, February 16, 2007

One more day (?)

Rumor mill now has us leaving tomorrow!?!!!

Apparently the forecast has the mercury dropping.... We shall see....

Thursday, February 15, 2007

One more week (?)

Winter-over Sven shuttles us out to the Dark Sector to move heavy stuff.

Eighth photo set is up.

Approximately one more week to go. Tonight I have to pack up my things and clean out my room. I'll get to stay there, but with only one carry-on bag. The rest gets crushed onto a pallet for loading onto our Herc, whenever it arrives. Living out of a single bag -- sort of like having your luggage lost on a ski trip (0.1" of powder, 2 miles of base).

To prevent us from getting lost and missing the last flight out, we're supposed to carry radios around or stay near the all-call (PA system). When they tell us they're yanking us out of here, we have to check in with comms so they know they don't have to come roll us out of bed, dispatch search parties, etc. so the plane can leave on time. They don't want to keep the plane here any longer than needed, partly, I think, out of concern for safety (the reason they don't fly here in winter is that the cold doesn't play well with various mechanisms on the planes).

Newest part of the new station awaits its fancy dark-blue siding.

Various things are shutting down - midnight and Sunday meals, Post Office; store hours are reduced. Population is less than half what it was when I arrived. It will be less than a hundred after tomorrow, then 55 after we leave.

Winter-over Claire salutes for the cause.

Work has been back and forth - it seems that every other day is a good day. We diagnosed one problem and Dave heroically spent 36 hrs implementing a fix. It helped, but just enough to uncover the next problem. More than ever it's a race against time (against the weather, the flight schedule, our flagging reserves of energy). The soft close buys us a little extra time, which we certainly can use to get things into shape.

Posing with an IceCube sensor in the counting house.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Closing Softly

Been a few days since writing but there is not too much new to report. The routine is the same: wake up, work out, work 12-14 hours, curl up in bed with Battlestar Galactica, sleep (modulo fire alarms or other noise). Iterate.

Our work has finally started to come together, with the new DAQ collecting data from nine strings as I write this. IceCube deployed 13 more this season and we will gradually be adding these in as the DAQ improves and the strings freeze in. It takes several weeks for the strings to freeze fully, and six months or more for the strings to cool down to the ambient temperatures in the ice - around -55C, though it gets warmer the deeper you go due to geothermal heating of the ice closer to the bedrock.

The station has quieted down substantially, having shed almost a hundred people since we arrived. The sun is a little lower on the horizon, as well. A taste of what winter will be like, perhaps. I do appreciate the quiet. Being a light sleeper teaches you to be careful about your own noise in the sleeping quarters. There is an art, for example, to closing doors softly: turn and hold the knob, let the door pull itself closed, release the knob after the door is shut so the latch doesn't clank.

Speaking of soft closings, we three DAQers are participating in the "soft close" of the station. In general the station closes for winter on the 14th to the 17th, with almost everybody but the winterovers leaving on one or two flights on the last day. The closing date has been typically set by the Air Guard based on average weather conditions - they don't like to fly once it starts to get too cold, about -50 to -60F.

This year a few of us are staying later, after the bulk of the summer folks leave, as late as Feb. 22. The caveat here is that we have to check our bags in advance and live out of one carry-on bag after the 17th, and be ready to leave literally on a moment's notice. "Soft close is 100% weather dependent. If our temperatures begin to drop, you may be notified of your departure with EXTREMELY SHORT NOTICE. It has happened that we have received word that we will depart on a flight when it is already enroute to Pole. Be prepared to depart at any time (and don't stray too far from the all-call!)." In other words, no leisurely strolls through the Dome or around the cargo berms for pictures.

So, until they tell us to drop everything and head out to the plane, we're writing documentation, fixing bugs, training the winter crew, scrounging leftovers from the galley fridge (the midnight meal ended yesterday for the summer), writing our last postcards, playing a game of Settlers of Catan now and then. Not quite allowing ourselves to think about the cold beer and warm late summer breezes on the outdoor patio of the Dux De Lux in Christchurch.

Friday, February 9, 2007

More photos

Made it out to the actual Pole markers with Dave for our obligatory "hero shots," including one of the sign for Linda's math class. It was -66F with wind chill, not too bad, so we headed down into the Dome - my old haunt from visits before the new station went up. I hadn't been there this trip.

The buildings have either been removed or are being stripped down. The old Science building is a demolition site now. There was no power but the camera flash served to light our way just like it did in the gun emplacements we explored near Christchurch. I spent a lot of time in the back of science and, as you can see from this photo, it is just a shell now. Ah, impermanence.

More pictures: the Dome entrance:

Buried crossroads near the smoking bar:

See also the rest of the pictures in this set.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Super Bowl Wednesday

New photo set going up as I type this.

Temperature -40F, wind chill -70F. Tonight was the Super Bowl in the galley - Super Bowl Wednesday. No live TV for us here, and the tradition is to have a news blackout about the Super Bowl until the recorded game can be played on-station. Normally I don't care too much for the 'Bowl or for football in general, but given that Chicago was playing, I thought it might be fun to check out the festivities here at Pole, which included a pig roast (head mounted proudly on the serving counter), HDTV recorded off of Armed Forces Network and played back ultra-low-def, and four feisty cheerleaders festooned in feisty bright skua [recycled] clothing with the letters "T", "I", "T", "S" emblazoned across their backs. I can assure you it was a scene not to be missed. Strangely, most of the Polies were rooting for the Colts. Colleague Mark explained the finer points of football rules and tactics that somehow didn't get beaten into me as a young boy growing up in Wisconsin. Though some kind soul fast-forwarded past all the commercials, I could tell that America's Finest got a rather different selection of commercials via AFN then the rest of us Stateside folks - lots more camouflage, anyway.

Last night while debugging a knotty communications issue with our sensors I managed to crash a computer out in the Dark Sector and had to suit up and head out. It was about 5:30 AM local time and very few people were out - just a few Caterpillars winterizing the IceCube drill camp. I walked about a mile in -55F to a deserted two story blue building just to push a single tiny button on one computer. It was a nice time, actually - not too cold with all my gear on, and the sky was lovely, and the scenery breathtakingly simple. I'm sure I enjoyed it more for having been inside for a few days and glued to the laptop.

Not too much to report - just the new picture set. Enjoy.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Night Owls

I have about 15 minutes to post this before we lose satellite connection. Still alive down here, just been very busy working. We have been fixing bugs roughly as fast as finding them, which is a good thing, though it makes the apparent progress seem slow. But we've accomplished a lot and have started progressively more difficult tests, including a first try at operating the new IceCube strings and the old AMANDA detector (IceCube's prototype) together.

The routine I'm settling into seems to be, get up in the afternoon, have a small breakfast, go to the gym, do treadmill + weights + anything else I feel like doing, take a 34 second shower (we're allocated 2 showers per week at 2 minutes each - that comes to 34 seconds per day), work all evening and all night, punctuated by mealtimes and occasional wanderings about the station, or perhaps a movie in one of the lounges. At the end of the day I crawl into my tiny cubbyhole, watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica or read a little Pynchon, put on the white noise mix I made with Garage Band (crickets, night campsite, distant erupting volcano, cave drips), and fall asleep for 5-6 hours. Then do it all over again.

I don't think I've been outside in two or three days.

Friday, February 2, 2007

First Week

Latest photo set

Haven't had time to write much, due to work becoming all-consuming. We have gotten a lot done since arriving but we have a long way to go. For the first few days I was working in the Dark Sector daily, poking around in big racks of equipment inside the IceCube Laboratory (ICL), or "counting house" (a venerable physics term for the hut where your data piles up). A shuttle leaves from the station every 20 minutes for the Dark Sector, until 4:30PM. After that time, you walk the half-mile distance (there is an IceCube van and some snowmobiles but I haven't used them for commuting yet). After two days I got things fixed enough that I was able to work remotely from the station, and haven't needed to go out since then. (You might ask, what's the point of going to the Pole if you can work remotely? The answer is complicated but boils down to needing 24/7 high speed network connectivity, face time with colleagues, and getting a sense of what's going on with the detector that is simply impossible up North - plus, of course, actually building and fixing the instrument, much of which we missed by coming down so late in the season).

The drawback of not having to go out to the counting house, however, is that if you are bunked inside the new station, you can easily go days without going outside. You have to force yourself to go out, or volunteer for or get picked for various cleanup or other chores.

Yesterday DAQer Keith left Pole, and we saw him out to the plane (see new photo set) - my first time outside in 24 hrs. There are often several flights a day during the week, mostly for cargo, but there is something special about the passenger (PAX) flights. Folks you know leave or arrive, or both, or you do; there is a certain community feel, a party atmosphere tinged with bittersweet and laced with frosty beards and eyebrows, while they wait to load cargo before they let the pax on board (keeping the pax well away from the propellers to keep any giddy beakers [scientists] from turning into pink spray on the snow). I have an affectionate feeling for the planes. The Hercs are special in that they are the only way home. Unless you decide to walk... some people do. Those people are even more crazy than we are.

Also stepped outside briefly early this morning without my gear on to take pictures of the following halo and sun dogs (perennial phenomena here at Pole, and very beautiful - see photo above).

To stay sane I have been going to the gym, and have really enjoyed the new facilities (last few years they have cannibalized various rooms in the old station for this purpose until the new gym was completed at the end of last summer). However, the combination of working out, changing to night shift to match the satellite, sleeping poorly (there is a lot of noise on station), and basically working all the rest of the time has left me feeling exhausted and with a chronic enough headache that I saw the doctor a short while ago (all indications are that I'm fine, so don't worry). So I'm going to be taking it a bit easier, and in fact just watched Fargo in the video lounge, and am going to take a nap. A hot bath would be nice, too, but that will have to wait until New Zealand, or home.

It looks as though they may try to keep a few of us past the nominal station close on Feb. 14. So that hot bath may have to wait a few more days.

Some annotations for the photos:

Lower hallway of the new station

0300h - lights on in the greenhouse... the humidity and smell of tomato plants are AMAZING.

Mustering for the flight North

More photos