Saturday, November 5, 2016

Escaping Antarctica

I've been in the US for a few days now, adjusting to life back on Earth. Some adjustments have been easier and quicker than others, but it's good to be back. At times the memories of Pole seem so distant, dream like and at times I feel like part of me is still there. The dreams are a constant, at times not allowing me to sleep very well. I'm sure that as time passes and I settle back into routines things will balance out. A couple of interesting observations since being back have been; the sun rises and sets daily! I wear shorts all time even though I see most wearing "winter" apparel already, the night sky is a very familiar one with the Orion constellation right were I remember it, the smells of fall are very strong and 75% humidity feels good, I can breath! The oxygen 10,000 feet up is one third less than at sea level and the internet is lightning fast! I could go on and on, but deprive yourself of everything that you know and are used to for 10 months and then walk right back into it and you'll begin to have an idea of what it feels like.

Last Saturday I was still standing at the bottom of the world with temperatures hovering around -57 F, 24 hour sun light and negative humidity with light winds and clear skies. That was the day I left Pole and I was again fortunate to fly out on a DC-3, one that was built in 1942! The C-130 Hercules transports commonly flown were not yet on the continent due to weather and mechanical issues so the DC-3s were pushed into action bringing crews in and taking us out. 

Five of us left for McMurdo Station on that flight, a flight that took us across the Polar plateau, through the trans Antarctic mountain range and over the frozen sea ice to Ross island. 

Although Mcmurdo station has an odd feel to it I realized that it was growing on me and I enjoyed the few days there taking in the scenery, warm temperatures (-4 F) and the crowds of people. There were about 700 people on station when I went through and the dinning facility was ground zero for gatherings. It was nice to see new faces and some that I had seen there before.

On the day of our departure from McMurdo we all boarded the Terra Buss called "Ivan" for the one hour slow drive out of town to the the ski-way were we would board a whale of  plane.

While waiting for our ride we had plenty of time to take in the surrounding beauty. In the above picture you can see Mount Erebus, the second highest volcano in Antarctica and the southernmost active volcano on earth. McMurdo Station sits at the base of the mountain volcano. Asking for trouble?

Soon after arriving we got word that our plane was inbound. It was amazing to see such a large plane (C-17) land on an ice runway.

The Terra bus went over to load the incoming station crew and take them into town. Cargo was unloaded and the plane was reloaded with outbound cargo to include our luggage and other large containers before we were allowed to board.

If you ever wondered what it would feel like to be in the belly of a whale this appears to be very close.

We settled into our less than comfortable seating for the 5 hour flight to NZ. Everyone was pretty exited to finally be escaping Antarctica after the long winter season and to temperatures above zero.

During the flight I managed to catch a glimpse of something that I had only seen months earlier, a sunset! During the past 10 months at the South Pole we saw the sun set once and rise once. The everyday occurrence of the sun's path across the sky was just a memory.

Once we were at cruising altitude some spread out on the floor of the plane's cargo hold for a nap since the floor was more comfortable than the bench seats. By the time we arrived in NZ it was midnight and dark. The sights, sounds and smells of the city were a welcome change to the sterile environment that we had become so accustomed to. Some of us were scheduled to depart that morning and needed to be back at the airport by 5 am not leaving much room for rest. In all, I flew for thirty hours before arriving back on the east coast of the US traveling roughly 15,000 miles. I wont be getting on another airplane for some time.

Being at the South Pole for an entire winter season has been by far the hardest thing that I have ever endured. I have accumulated memories and experiences that will last me a lifetime. Although this will be my last official post about my time in Antarctica you are welcomed to ask questions. I'll get an email alert and will answer them promptly.

What's next? Maybe some mountain climbing in the PNW, or maybe jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, maybe the North Pole? All of the above!


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Leaving Soon

Our weather is starting to "normalize" here at Pole without as many wild temperature swings, but that can change in a matter of minutes. A few days ago I woke to a clear day and within the hour visibility was limited to a 1/4 mile. Winds bring "warmer" temps but also get ice crystals airborne and that's the big visibility killer. On the other hand the weather at McMurdo has been really bad all week with high winds grounding all flights in and out of McM and stranding our summer crew. We're looking forward to them arriving as that will signal the exodus for us that have been here for nine months.

Warm is a relative term here in Antarctica. You still need to protect yourself from the cold and winds. Today I was outside for a bit and felt the sun's warmth on my face for the first time in nine months. It was a strange feeling, but a welcomed one that reminded me of what awaits me in a few short weeks.

Some personal trivia: I'm the 1487th person to have wintered at the South Pole (more than 4,000 people have been to the summit of Everest). I'm also the first Uruguayan born winter-over at the South Pole ( I know of one other Uruguayan, an astronomer who has been here a few summer seasons ). By the time I return to the Mid Atlantic region I will have flown 30,000 total miles to and from the South Pole. I like flying, but not that much.

I'll be leaving soon and this will be my last post from the South Pole. We'll be very busy this week with summer reediness tasking and turnovers with the summer crew as soon as they arrive. We'll all start to pack and hope for good weather that will allow flights in and out of McM. Getting stranded in McMurdo with 700+ people is not what I would call fun, though some might see it differently. 

On station we haven't been exposed to any communicable illnesses since we have been literally isolated from the rest of the world. Once we leave, many of us will catch a cold, the flu and whatever else is floating around out there. Not looking forward to that.

Life at Pole for the past nine months has been very interesting to say the least. The six months of darkness were at times surreal and the vistas incredible. Being in close quarters with the same group of people for so long, living and working with no escape from anything is not for everyone and one can see why mental evals are very necessary to ensure that everyone will get along. Even with the stringent qualification processes in place some slip through the cracks and it's up to the rest of the crew to "take care" of things and maintain a harmonious existence. At times this can be trying, even for the calmest of people. Next winter NASA will be conducting studies here at the South Pole using the station and the long isolation as an analog for long duration space travel studying the effects of the experience on volunteers. This is the only place on earth that comes close to what it would be like being in space, or on another planet for that matter. Interesting stuff for sure...

Next Post? Escaping Antarctica

Saturday, October 15, 2016

First Plane at Pole

This week we've had really good weather and a lot has been done in preparation for station opening. The skiway and flight deck are ready for inbound flights and now we are moving snow for access to outbuildings that will be used during the summer season.

On Tuesday we saw the first of many flights that will be making their way through the South Pole in route to McMurdo Station. The first was a Basler (seen below) that had to refuel and leave immediately thereafter taking advantage of the good weather window to McMurdo. Typically these flights don't bring in or take out passengers but this particular one did. We had to say goodbye to another team member that was being flown out early due to a medical condition that needed to be further evaluated. This was a precautionary measure and not a medical evacuation as we had midwinter and now we're down to 45 from the original 48 on station. Later that day we got our second plane, a Twin Otter similar to the one used during the midwinter operation. That flight was grounded overnight due to bad weather in McMurdo closing their skiway. It was strange having new faces on station for the first time in many months, but nice a the same time. We did everything possible to make them feel at home and part of the crew. They were given tours of the science buildings, ice tunnels and shared meals with us. Good times.

This coming week we will see more flights, a few will be passing through and one will be bringing in the first of the summer team and taking another one of our crew out. Not due to medical issues, but due to an interview with NASA! One of our science crew was selected for an interview out of more than 10 thousand applicants for the astronaut program and will be flying directly to Texas for the interview once out of Antarctica. Very exiting! 

Next Post? Leaving Soon

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Aurora Cam

It's getting toasty at the South Pole! For the past several days we have seen temps in the -80s F, low winds and sunshine. Today the temps have risen significantly and so have the winds reducing visibility to less than a 1/4 mile. The sun is now 6 degrees above the horizon and blindingly bright.
In the below image taken last week I was the furthest that I have been from the station in more than eight months, a little over two miles. When looking at the expansive polar plateau I was reminded that there wasn't anything man made or living for thousands of miles. Moments like that remind you of where you are and how isolated you are, might as well be on another planet.

My outing to what we call "beyond the end of the world" did have a purpose, myself and a few others were adjusting the skiway markers that line the sides and serve as distance reference for planes landing and taking off. The skiway here at Pole is 12,000 feet long and there were a lot of markers to install and adjust. Now that the skiway has been groomed, marked and the fuel pit is set up we are ready for planes to come in. We should see our first passing planes mid week and everything is ready to go!

Being outside for extended periods of time requires having the right clothing and ensuring that you protect your face. There are times where all you leave exposed is a small sliver between your cap and neck gaiter so that you can see. The windier it gets the smaller the sliver and at times your eyelashes freeze shut or to your neck gaiter. Fun times. 

The Aurora Cam:

Here at the South Pole during the one long night one gets a first row seat to the amazing light shows provided by nature. Extreemly sensitive cameras are positioned on the roof of the station to capture and measure the intensity of the auroras. The “southern lights” are caused by collisions between fast moving particles (electrons) from space and the oxygen and nitrogen gas in our atmosphere. These electrons originate in the magnetosphere, the region of space controlled by Earth’s magnetic field. As they rain into the atmosphere, the electrons impart energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules, making them excited. When the molecules return to their normal state, they release photons, small bursts of energy in the form of light. When billions of these collisions occur and enough photons are released, the oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere emit enough light for the eye to detect them. This ghostly glow can light up the sky in a surreal dance of colors

Photo by Ethan Rudnitsky

The color of the aurora depends on which gas is being excited by the electrons and on how much energy is being exchanged. Oxygen emits either a greenish-yellow light (the most familiar color of the aurora) or a red light; nitrogen generally gives off a blue light. The oxygen and nitrogen molecules also emit ultraviolet light, which can only be detected by special cameras on satellites.

The shape of the aurora depends on where in the magnetosphere the electrons came from and on what caused them to precipitate into the atmosphere, dramatically different shapes can be seen in a single observation period. For scale, in the above image there's a structure seen at the bottom center, it's the Ice Cube Lab with a colorful display above and the milky-way in the background . In the below image the aurora were seen over the South Pole Telescope. 

Photo by Hans Boenish

Next Post? First Plane at Pole!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Clean Air Sector

Get out your sunglasses, it's really bright out there! Today is a very nice sunny day with very low winds. A great day for a stroll at the South Pole! Yeah, it's still -75F, but cold is cold. This week we began getting the ski-way ready and started setting up the flight line ahead of the first flights of the season that will be passing through in about a week. Those flights will be leaving Punta Arenas Chile and head across the Drake passage to Union glacier and then making a stop at Pole for fuel, food and rest before continuing to McMurdo station on Ross island

Yesterday some of us volunteered to raise the new flags at the Ceremonial South Pole, a yearly tradition. Flags are removed after the last outbound summer flight and replaced with new ones at the beginning of the following summer season. The flags represent the original signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty. I raised the Argentinian flag (far right).

The Clean Air Sector:

ARO ( The Atmospheric Research Observatory) is located in what is called The Clean Air Sector. An area of the South Pole station complex that has no air pollutants running through it from the man made emissions that are emanated by the station, its operation and surroundings. The cleanest air on earth!

ARO is run by two winter-overs with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), one of which is on his 12th winter here! And we have another on his 12th winter, he is running one of the telescopes in the Dark Sector. The two longest running residents of the South Pole and a record.

 At the ARO long term measurements of ultra violet (UV) radiation and trace gases that influence climate and the ozone layer are taken along with measurements of carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, aerosols, water vapor, surface and stratospheric ozone, chlorofluorocarbons, and the ozone layer. These measurements are used for analysis of data records that focus on stratospheric ozone depletion, trans Antarctic transport and deposition, interplay of the trace gases and aerosols with solar and terrestrial radiation fluxes on the polar plateau, the magnitude of seasonal and temporal variations in greenhouse gases and the development of polar stratospheric clouds over Antarctica. A lot of science!

Next Post? The Aurora Cam

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Neutrino Telescope

The sun is finally above the horizon! One sunrise and one sunset per year, something to celebrate. But the temps are still what we've seen for a long time and won't change drastically until November, after I leave...Go figure!

In my last post I mentioned the high winds and how snow drifting had accumulated around the station. The below image was taken in January when I arrived and when a lot of snow moving and clearing takes place to keep things accessible during the busy summer season.

The below photo was taken about a week ago. Need I say more?

The Neutrino Telescope, IceCube!

This particular telescope takes up an entire square kilometer of space and is mostly under the ice. It doesn't look up at the heavens, but instead looks for signs of high energy particles traversing the earth from light years away, even from the edge of the universe. These high-energy subatomic "ghost" particles are called neutrinos and travel immense cosmological distances practically unchanged since they were born 15 billion years ago, soon after the formation of the universe. Neutrinos are also produced in space during the birth, collision, and deaths of stars, more so during the explosions of supernovae.

Below photos by Christian C. "Dr. Sprinkles"

The IceCube Lab sits above the ice and contains all of the equipment needed to power and monitor the detector array that is deep in the ice, almost two miles deep. The array consists of 86 strings of 60 sensors each for a total of 5,160 sensors that were lowered into the ice after holes were drilled with a specially designed hot water drill. In the blow image one can begin to grasp the scale of the sensor array that is buried deep below the lab.

Each sensor or DOM (Digital Optical Module) contains very light sensitive electronics that can detect passing neutrinos only by the light they emit when interacting with the very clear, transparent ice that is found deep in the Antarctic plateau, hence the term "ghost" particle, the actual particle is not seen. The DOMs time stamp the light emitted and reconstruct a direction of travel from a possible point of origin in space. Neutrinos are studied to gain a better understanding of the universe and are also candidates for dark matter, specifically hot dark matter, another cosmic mystery. 

In the above photo you can see a DOM of the type that make up the sensor array, not small or lightweight. The IceCube experiment runs without issue, most of the time, but when things do go wrong corrective action needs to be swift. Below are components that were being re-built after failure and put back into service. Repairs are done by the two person science team assigned to the telescope.

Next Post? The Clean Air Sector

Saturday, September 17, 2016

South Pole Telescopes

Weather this time of year can be and has been very erratic. We have seen temperature swings from -107F to -45F and winds in excess of 24 knots the past few weeks. It's hard to see in the below image, but there are snow drifts as high as 20 feet in some areas.

Although we cannot yet see the sun, it's inching ever closer to us and is scheduled to break the horizon on or about the 22nd of this month. We are all looking forward to it. At this point darkness will not fall again at the South Pole until March. 24 hr sunlight is here!

South Pole Telescopes:

There are three microwave telescopes here at the South Pole, at this time all of them are observing the cosmic microwave background (CMB) in a "clean" area of space that allows them to peer deep into the universe's past without too much interference from galaxy clusters. The 10 meter telescope seen far left in the image below also surveys galaxy clusters during certain times of the year. By observing the CMB these telescopes are looking for clues about the early formation of the universe when it was less than a fraction of a second old and theorized to have expanded or inflated exponentially during that tiny fraction of a second. These telescopes are looking for signs of gravitational waves that are theorized to have been caused during that period of rapid expansion. Cool stuff!

Next Post? The Neutrino Telescope