Saturday, January 30, 2010

The End

I'm home for real! The whole end of my trip seemed very surreal, but I guess that's what happens with a head cold and sleep deprivation, mixed with a little international travel. It took me four days, yes, FOUR DAYS, to get home from Antarctica. I left on Monday (NH time) and didn't get home until 3pm on Thursday.

But before I left, I had a chance to say goodbye to some people and have just a little more fun. On Monday, the night before my flight, I hung out with my airforce buddies one last time and even got to go to my last mid-rats!! I had obtained a mid-rats card from someone who left a week earlier. If you have one of those special cards, you get to go to midnight rations at midnight instead of waiting until 12:30 like all the day-timers. I think the idea is to let the real night-shift people get food before all the drunken moochers come in looking for a midnight snack. But nobody ever even asked for my mid-rats card! It was apparently a rule not often enforced.

Mid rats!! Proudly eating a falafel sandwich with my mid rats card in the background...


The sign sounds threatening! But they're just bluffing.


The next morning I woke up early to get a tour of the USNS Paul Buck, the fuel tanker that was in port at McMurdo at the time. My army guys had a private tour set up and they invited me along. It was an awesome ship! It wouldn't even really be that bad to live on it for six months at a time. The rooms were more spacious than at McMurdo! And the food even looked better.

Bridge of the ship, looking out over the deck.


Mostly all of that equipment is for the fuel: pumps and plumbing to deliver the cargo ashore. Different color codings painted on the pipes mean different fuel. They carry gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, whatever. The tour guide had some impressive numbers about pumping capacity and pressure but I can't remember them. I do remember that it's double-hulled, which was a fuel tanker requirement after the Exxon Valdez debacle.

Big ships need big engines. The room it was housed in was at least two stories tall!


The Oden (Swedish icebreaker) was docked right up against the Paul Buck for refueling purposes. And yes, the tour guide's fly was open... I don't know why!


Despite my fear of oceans, I think I could take a ride on that one for a while. It seemed big enough to not sink or flip over. The guide did say that it was smooth sailing, but he hadn't been aboard for a hurricane yet. He told us how the whales and dolphins will come swim right next to the ship which sounds like an outstanding experience.

After the tour, I headed up to the mail room with all my luggage to catch the ride to my plane. We all took a caravan out to the airfield at 11:45am and waited for the plane to arrive. It was a little sad to be leaving... there are some good people I met that I will miss a lot, especially since I'll probably never see them again. I had less than a day in Christchurch but I at least got to sleep in a real hotel bed one night. The next morning I checked out and headed to the airport to catch the first of many planes bringing me back home. I went from Antarctica to Christchurch, NZ to Sydney, AU to Honolulu, Hawaii to San Francisco, CA to Detroit, MI to Manchester, NH. A few of those flights were very empty so I got to lay down across a row and get some real sleep. But not much at one time. Overall, I went two full nights without a bed. I felt like a total zombie when I got home. But the upside is that I met a nice, cute USAP guy and we decided to go to Waikiki, a beach in Honolulu, for just one hour during our layover. It was spectacular! I wish I had more time there, but it was worth it even for the short visit. I felt sand between my toes, walked in the ocean and drank a Mai Tai while gazing at the beach.

A real beach! So refreshing after all that ice...


Sarah picked me up from the airport once I got back and took me to eat some real, non-airport, non-expired food! Thank you Sarah!! So the ARRO is on it's way home, it will reach UNH in about 8 weeks or something. Edith grunted with excitement for about 20 minutes when I got to the house. And I'm adjusting (slowly) back to the real world and my own time zone. So all is good, mission accomplished. Back to solid ground and seeing stars at night. Tune in for my next science blog session when I head to Norway this November for a rocket launch!


{Actual posting date: Saturday, January 30th, 10 pm EST}

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Life at McMurdo

Since the science is over, and me hanging out with random people isn't that exciting for a science blog, I've decided to do a post about what life is like at McMurdo.

There are people here that come and go, but there is a big group who stay the entire season, with maybe a little R&R trip in the middle. Therefore, there is quite the sense of community between most of these folks. They are stuck here, sometimes with their significant others, sometimes without, spending holidays & birthdays together, sharing the bad times as well. I was talking to a friend here who has an extensive interest in personality types and she says that the most popular personality down here, Myers-Briggs-wise, is the INTJ. Which is, of course, what I am. No wonder only 1% of the the rest of the world is INTJ... they're all down here on the ice! But you can easily see why that type of person is drawn to this place. There are a lot of travelers, wanderers, science & tech people, dreamers. Not that I could ever come down here permanently or semi-permanently as many have chosen to do. There's no grass! No gardens (with the exception of the little greenhouse on the hill), no dogs & cats, very little fresh food, no trees. And most importantly, no time alone! Usually everyone has a roommate, at least in the summer season. There's also no real seasons and most of the year there's no day & night. Just constant sunlight or constant dark. A lot of the things I love in life are not here. But somehow these people make it work, and in some ways I admire that.

The town is one of the most functional, efficient systems I've ever seen in action. It is that way, of course, because of the relatively few amount of people it needs to service. Even a small university is much larger in scope. There is also a bit of a divide. Raytheon, a government defense contractor, provides much of the support for the town and it's scientists. Yet a bunch of the employees are not huge fans of Raytheon and are, in fact, oftentimes on the fringes of American politics and society. With such a critical opinion of the military contractor that they work for, there are understandably some conflicts that arise. I've seen subversive stickers on the walls and heard conversations that Raytheon officials would not like to overhear. But there is also a more present divide between the actual military stationed at the base and the support and the scientists. Not many of the civilians or beakers (slang for scientist) here actually socialize with the army guys and gals. I was one of the few, gladly getting the compliment of the "one cool beaker." But really, everyone is here for the same purpose: to do their job, do it well and have some fun in the meantime.

Some of the fun of being here is the sense of isolation. The only way on or off the continent is by ship or by air. And each avenue is essentially close off during the entirety of the winter season. Currently, there is a fuel vessel in port, pumping thousands of gallons of fuel into McMurdo - enough to last the long, dark winter.

The USNS Paul Buck - I love the huge "NO SMOKING" sign on the ship full of gasoline


There is a flurry of activity here every day. McMurdo doesn't sleep and it never stops. Planes and helos are arriving and departing constantly, every day that the weather cooperates during the busiest time. Passengers arriving from field sites, the South Pole, Christchurch. There are a million jobs to get done each and every day. As hard as everyone works, they find the time to throw some pretty awesome parties.

The scenery is the best part honestly. Although you have to get away from town to see it in its pure state.

View from the NSF Chalet


This place is beautiful, but you are constantly surrounded by the chugging of trucks and machinery, the beeps of backing up vehicles and the general chaos of a perpetual construction site. It's noisy and dirty and dusty. And yet, off in the distance you can see the undamaged terrain that McMurdo used to be. Yes, this place must exist if we are to explore and understand the far reaches of this continent, but it is still a little sad.

Dirty McMurdo


I have really enjoyed my time here, but am so glad to be going home. My house, my friends, my life - they are all calling me back home. But I've made some friends here and met a LOT of people and had some truly good times. Going to the bag drag in just a few hours and then the flight out is tomorrow. I'm coming back to New Hampshire!!!

{Actual posting date: Monday, January 25th, afternoon}

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hiking Ob Hill, Antarctica

Hooray! The ARRO is packed and ready to be shipped. It was slow going, but we finally got it done and I'm officially done with work here. Yesterday was some of my army buddies' last night here, they left on a plane North today. So we spent the evening celebrating. First, we hiked Observation Hill - what a great view from up there! Observe the many cool pictures...

View from the bottom


Demolition zone, complete with warning dummy!


View from halfway up


I'm king of the world!


Me and the boys on the peak of Ob Hill


Scott's cross, memorial to Robert F. Scott, Antarctic explorer & ultimate victim of the harsh Antarctic conditions


Scott's cross with a great view of Mt. Erebus in the background


And now, for a short digression into the geology and history of Mt. Erebus:

Erebus was named after a ship by the same moniker, captained by an early explorer, Sir James Clark Ross. Erebus was a son of the Greek god of Chaos. Perfectly appropriate for this volatile mountain. Mt. Erebus is the ideal test subject for volcanologists. It is one of only a few such volcanos in the world where you can witness & study the lava lake directly from the inner crater. It's lake is always active, constantly convecting and well viewed from a relatively safe position. Although one must watch out for the occasional lava bomb, a blob of magma thrown high into the air during a violent convection. Mt. Erebus was first summited by members of the Shackleton expedition in 1908. It is a favorite among scientists because it is so easy to access compared to other similar volcanos. A mere 35 km from the cushy McMurdo station, the mountain is easily reached by helos and has a permanent base camp on its slope.

After the climb up Ob Hill, we hit the Southern Exposure for a few games of shuffleboard, and later in the night I had a chance to go to my first mid rats! (Check the glossary on that one...) Well, it was a good send off at least. Farewell friends!


{Actual posting date: Saturday, January 23rd, dinnertime}

Thursday, January 21, 2010

David Attenborough!

Last night I went to burger bar, a famous past time here in McMurdo. Every Sunday and Wednesday, one of the bars here has a burger night where they will sell you a burger (or veggie burger!) with every topping you could want plus a side of fries for only $2! It was way better than the normal Galley food. I hung out with some people and got inducted into something called Team Extreme, which might be a good or bad thing - remains to be seen! The sickness still lingers, but it is transforming into something slightly better. I need to stay hydrated! Here is a helpful reminder that can be seen on the back of all the toilet stall doors.



Despite the broken English, it's very good advice! Today (Thursday) was a great day, since I can finally see the end of the project. We will be done packing everything up by tomorrow sometime and the next flight North will be Tuesday, so I'll be on that one. Should be back to NH by Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Today I disassembled some clamps, drove a truck around doing errands to get rid of our leftover materials and had the commander of the group of the New Zealand armed forces here offer "some men" to help if I needed any heavy lifting done. Sadly, one of our coils got destroyed while being dug up. But everything else seems to have survived intact so I think we're doing good. Tonight was the famous talk by Sir David Attenborough.



He spoke of the Birds of Paradise and their mating habits and of Darwin's contemporary, Alfred Wallace, who had many of the same ideas and studied these birds for years. He also took some questions at the end, one of which was "Where do you want to go that you haven't been yet?" His answer was the Gobi Desert... So I've been one place David Attenborough hasn't. Cool! He was quite an animated speaker for being 83 years old. He also had a great story about being manhandled by a huge female gorilla in Rwanda.

After the lecture, I went to hang out with some cool people. And I think I got a ticket on a trip to see Pegasus this Sunday! The Pegasus is not just the name of the runway here, it is also the name of the crashed plane buried in the ice nearby. So we may go out and check that out this weekend. Tomorrow I have a hike planned for Observation Hill after work.

One more thing to say before passing out for the night: Happy Birthday, Sarah!! (even though she's already asleep and won't see this until tomorrow)

{Actual posting date: Thursday, January 21st, bedtime}

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Not Much To Say...

I haven't been doing much of anything these past two days due to my having contracted The Crud! The Crud, if you'll check your handy dictionary, refers to the mish-mash of viral and bacterial germs that new people bring when arriving to McMurdo en masse. These colds/flus quickly circulate among the population since everyone stays inside, eats communally, etc. My doom was probably the decision to actually be social and get out to meet people and go to get-togethers. I woke up Tuesday morning totally unable to go to work and went straight to the clinic. My colleague, Jim, was a trooper and went to work anyway even though I told him he shouldn't since it wouldn't be fair. I got some meds from the Doc and slept the day away. All the army medics in the clinic stopped by to giggle with me since I had been hanging out with them a fair amount. After my check-up, Mike gave me a mini-tour of the clinic, and I saw the neatest, old-school hyperbaric chamber, used for pumping straight oxygen into a body that has sustained severe altitude sickness or decompression sickness. It looked like a vintage time machine! But alas, I didn't have my camera, so I found some pictures online that look almost exactly the same.

Looks a bit like a mini-submarine!


Apparently, they haven't had to use it yet this season, but they often use it at least once per season. The Pole is very high altitude. So, after sleeping through lunch yesterday and feeling like a bum because I didn't do any work, I had to move rooms because the geniuses here decided I should get a better room even though I'm leaving in a few days anyway! So now I have a pretty chic room in a different building with just one roommate who works on bacteria samples from the Dry Valleys. Look up the McMurdo Dry Valleys sometime on wikipedia. They are one of the modern geological wonders - being one of the driest places on Earth, they approximate Martian terrain quite well and they are also home to the Blood Falls, which is quite literally a waterfall that appears to be spewing bright red blood.

Today (Wednesday) I didn't feel any better even after sleeping for so many hours. But I still made myself be useful. After breakfast, I wandered over to our little ARRO station which is now in town! They moved it out of the snow and all the way to town yesterday. So I took care of the batteries which meant borrowing a truck and hoisting 9 batteries that weigh about 80 lbs. a piece into the bed of the truck and driving them over to Science Cargo where they can appropriately deal with the hazmat situation and get them ready for shipping back to the US. That took until lunchtime, after which I promptly went back to sleep. And guess what I'm going to do after dinner? That's right, sleep time. Doc says if you don't take the time to rest, it gets a lot worse and stays for longer. Plus, we're almost done with our work now. We should have everything packed up and ready to ship by the end of Friday. And I absolutely have to have my strength back enough to see David Attenborough speak tomorrow night! So send me good, healing thoughts!

{Actual posting date: Wednesday, January 20th, dinner time}

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Monday Kind of Day

Just in case some of what I'm writing seems confusing to you, I've decided to point everyone towards the wonderfully written Dictionary of Antarctic Slang. Here you can look up any strange terms I may use, such as when I mention getting 'freshies' for dinner or sitting next to some DV's in the Delta on the way to Pegasus. It's a typical military type environment - slang for everything.

Today we went out to the ARRO site and took the solar panels off the building. They got packed in a special crate that the carp shop made just for us. Next step: machines digging out the building tomorrow!

I thought I would share some photos of me taken by a really cool lady named Reina that I met on the way down here. She has since gone off to the Pole for her research, but she emailed these to me recently. I know! Internet at the South Pole! How cool.

On the C-17 cargo plane



Hut Point - cross commemorating Scott's exploration party that died in search of the Pole


{actual posting date: Monday, January 18th}

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Vacation Day!

Nothing new to report on the work front, since we didn't go to work today! We are waiting for the carpentry shop to finish building a crate we need to pack up the solar panels. The next step is for the heavy equipment crew to come in and dig out the ARRO box. Here's a little look at what they're up against!

Poor little guy is so snowed in


First, they'll have to dig out a good path to get the forklift down there, then slowly get that box up on the forks and finally attempt to back it out and load it on a truck - all without tipping the structure! The NiCd batteries are not allowed to be tipped or else the potassium hydroxide will spill out. BUT none of that can get going without us first taking those big, fragile solar panels off the sides. So we got a vacation day. In honor of such an occasion, I decided to go out last night (Saturday's the big night out around here) and see what the MacTown residents do for fun. And, well, I ended up dressing like a lizard, making friends with the entire medical team of McMurdo and watching a belly dancer perform while a 6-foot tall ghost danced nearby. Pretty good party for the middle of nowhere!

You may think it sounds like all play and no work around here, but that's not the case at all. Over 50 of the McMurdo residents entered in a polar marathon and have been training for weeks! Today was the big day. And I went down to the finish line after brunch with some friends to cheer on a very brave military guy named Mike, who ran the entire 26 miles on the snow and ice, in under 5 hours.

Yay Mike!


After that was all over, we went to visit Scott Base, the Kiwi station right down the road from McMurdo. There are helpful shuttles that go back and forth almost every hour. The base had a cute store, good views and a guest book to sign that went all the way back to 1984!



I visited the MacTown coffee house in the afternoon, which is a great little building, I'll post some pictures sometime. Inside, it looks like you're in the hull of a ship. And it's very warm and relaxing - a great place to get some work on my proposal done. It looks like tonight I've been invited off to play darts & pool for a while. Monday morning means going back to work outside! And it's going to be a cold one I think...

{actual posting date: Sunday, January 17th}

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Welcome to McMurdo!

The purpose of this trip is, contrary to popular belief, NOT to walk around on amazing cliffs and hang out with penguins & leopard Weddell seals. We are here to retrograde a little instrument enclosure called ARRO that records and transmits magnetic and auroral data. It's an eight foot cube, totally self-sufficient with wind turbines, solar panels and a rack of batteries. Unfortunately, our goal here is to break it all down, pack it up inside itself and bring it home. Sometimes that's just what happens with experiments, it's called politics. However, we hit our first stumbling block today since we need to pack up the delicate solar panels and all-sky camera before doing anything else and the cases we needed for each were not ready or missing. Things will get going tomorrow again, but today was a nice break during which I got a chance to do other work. And take a walk up to the Hut point again to watch the icebreaker ship try to bust through the ice and make a shipping channel. He was doing a pretty good job of it! The first of two huge shipping vessels comes in a few days from now. They are preparing for the winter season down here, which is approaching quickly. No more regular planes will fly after around mid-February.

McMurdo is a nice place, although (gasp! I can't believe I'm saying this!) it actually makes me miss Alaska. There is plenty to do here, lots of socializing, a crazy scene made up of half military or ex-military and half hippies or ex-hippies. Lots of burners, riot grrls, you get the idea. But for me, having that stereotypical temperament of the lone scientist, it's a little too busy. I would rather have the solitude and isolation. But that's what hiking is for! I've already been out walking twice in 48 hours, even when exhausted, but hey that's my usual habit. Alaska is definitely more intense and beautiful, and totally more primitive. I bet if I came here for a winter, I'd see some real similarities though.

Despite all the whiteness, Antarctica is actually quite 'green!'


Trash bins can be somewhat confusing!


There is a bin for everything and it is all meticulously recycled or burned or re-used. You must separate plastic from cardboard from paper from food scraps from bio waste from dryer lint! Everything is about saving every last drop, which is often military standard anyway. The town works very efficiently this way. Speaking of the town, would you like to see it? This is McMurdo Station (MacTown), Antarctica. [Click to make the picture bigger & see the town better!]


Not bad for the middle of nowhere


There are up to 1,000 people just at this one station at any given time during the summer. It drops way down to 200 or so for winter-over, but still quite impressive. I ended today with a 2 hour (!!!) yoga class in the chapel and a warm shower. How's that for living at the end of the earth? Tomorrow: more field work! I'll try really hard not to get any sunburn like I did the first day out!

{actual posting date: Friday, January 15th}

On the Ice

I finally made it to the ice! After an exhausting few days of traveling, biding time and being rushed and frustrated, I truly made it. Yesterday was one of the craziest days I've probably ever had. It started at my 4:30 am wake-up call in Christchurch. But alas, our plane was delayed a couple hours so I managed some more real sleep. When it came time to get to the airport, everything went smoothly, but it still took a couple hours to check-in, load our luggage and board the plane. The ride was 5 hours in a C-17, but what an experience. All of our luggage and cargo was palleted and bolted to the center floor... the passengers were just a second thought. And it was so loud that we had to wear earplugs. At least it was heated! And we got a cute little bag lunch from the army guys. Once arriving, we were herded off the plane and kinda just all stood around amazed at the whiteness and beauty. Well, that's what I did for sure. There was a nice view of Mt. Erebus from the Pegasus runway where we landed. Standing off to the side was a huge orange track vehicle called "Ivan the terror bus," though it looked a good deal more like a tank than a bus. We all climbed aboard and started the 45 minute ride to the station. And something unbelievable happened! We saw a group of Emperor penguins huddled by the road!! The driver slowed but kept going, since we're not supposed to disturb the wildlife. First stop was Scott station where we let all the Kiwis off. This is one of New Zealand's bases. Then we reached McMurdo! It's nestled right in the cliffs of a big hill of black volcanic rock. This being summer, all the roads up there are bare, crushed rock - no snow. I got a briefing, picked up sheets and got my room assignment. I was first assigned to what I soon realized was a boy's room - oh no! But then I got it straightened out, and ended up being with four other very nice ladies. I hung out with one of them at dinner (more about the bad food later) and then we decided to head out on a mini-hike. We had spotted a point out past the base that looked like it had a good view, so we headed over. It turned out to be Hut Point, named after the hut nearby that Robert Scott and his team built when he came here exploring in 1901, pushing to make it to the South Pole. He and his men later disappeared and there is a cross on the highest part of the point to commemorate their fate. Guess what we saw from the peak? More penguins! This time they were Adelie penguins, which are much smaller than Emperors but very cute and playful. There were two of them and they were frolicking around on some ice chunks, diving and then popping up on the ice again. So cute! We also spotted a seal way off, bobbing his head up and down. Maybe he was stuck and couldn't find a way back out to sea, since most of the place was solid ice, with only patches of water here and there.


Place where the seal was hanging out


Exhausted & exhilarated, I fell into bed at 11pm with the sunshine at full speed outside. Good thing my room doesn't have any windows! It's pure pitch dark in there. The next day, my colleague and I went around doing errands like getting HF radios and checking in with our Point of Contact guy. Later in the morning, we arranged a ride out to the LDB (long duration balloon) site where our instrument building is located. We don't actually have anything to do with balloons. Our observatory is strictly to study magnetic and auroral data, but it's out at the same site. After a quick lunch at the galley out there (which has waaaay better food than the main station, so I'm glad we'll be out there most days!), we decided to tag along as some of the guys took a truck out to see the nesting Emperors that we saw on the way from the plane the day before. When we found them, we got out and the four of us got within just a few meters before they started reacting to us. That's the sign you should back off.


Penguins seem like little people in penguin suits!

Penguins are really quite amiable about humans gawking. Sometimes they even try to come over and investigate because they're so curious. No wonder they and the seals and the whales were all hunted like crazy! Poor things. They were pretty magnificent. I never thought I would actually get that close to an Emperor penguin. It's stupid, but I felt like I was in March of the Penguins, seeing these amazing guys up so close.


I like how the penguins look like explorers claiming the land


Enough excitement for my first 24 hours in Antarctica? I think so. Tonight I'm truly, utterly exhausted. I really need sleep & rest or I'm gonna drive myself into the ground. I'm just waiting for a free dryer and when that's done... off to sleep!

{actual posting date: Thursday, January 14th}

Monday, January 11, 2010

Going to the ICE!!

It's high time to re-start the blog! I'm off on another research trip, but this time it's the Frozen South I'm going to. Currently I'm hanging out in Christchurch, New Zealand - a decidedly cute little Kiwi city. I left home on Friday, January 8th and, a mere three days later, it's Tuesday already. Gotta love that international travel.

The voyage to NZ was actually a bit horrendous. 30+ hours of air travel with a couple "close calls" on our connections. One of which was so close, that we had to literally disbark in Detroit and sprint from Terminal C to Terminal A during the 10 mins before our next plane left. As I was rounding the last corner to the gate (out of breath and sure to have a heart attack at any moment), I actually heard the final boarding warning announcing that they were about to close the doors. It was almost straight out of a movie, I felt like Hugo on that Lost episode where he absolutely must catch that plane. Anyway, we made it and we also made the Sydney connection (where we were ushered up to first class so we could be the first ones out and make a run for it) but our bags didn't. But I did finally get my luggage, a day after making it to New Zealand, and managed to not be too upset about wearing stinky airplane clothes for three days.

Yesterday we headed over to the Antarctic center and specifically the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) to get briefed on our extreme cold weather gear. Then the men & ladies separated so we could each go try on the clothes they had set aside for us. I ended up having to exchange my small parka for an XXS and it's still huge, but everything else mostly fit.

Today I'm leaving the warm, summery island of NZ in favor of the vast continent of Antarctica. Our C-17 jet (cute little gray military plane) was scheduled to leave early this morning, but we've since been delayed three times so I'm killing time at the hotel. We have a five hour flight (lame!) that may turn into a 10 hour flight if we have to boomerang and head back just before landing due to Antarcitc weather conditions. Believe me, I'm glad to be stuck in NZ waiting for a delayed flight than having to boomerang. I'll be staying at McMurdo station for the duration of the Antarctic stay, but there's plenty of internet access so blog posts will be published. The next one tomorrow hopefully, if we make it down to the ice today! Keep your fingers crossed for me...




{actual post was on Tuesday, January 12th - posting from the other side of the international dateline!}