The Antarctica Diaries: week three

As far as workplaces go, you could do worse than the South Pole. Michael Ashley

Professor Michael Ashley is currently in Antarctica to deploy a telescope to one of the most remote locations on Earth – a place known as Ridge A, some 850km from the South Pole.

This is the third instalment in Professor Ashley’s Antarctica Diaries. To read the previous instalments, follow the links at the bottom of this article.

December 26 – Finally, the Pole

OK, today is the day.

Due to all the delays we have faced in getting to the South Pole, our flight is now high in the priority list and is scheduled for an 11am departure. This means leaving McMurdo at 8:45am. We are all resigned to the usual waiting around and delays, but for some reason things are moving fast today, and we only have to wait ten minutes before being rushed out to the LC-130 aircraft.

There we are given a two-minute, very-hurried pre-flight briefing. Normally you would think this would be pretty straightforward: “to release the seat belt, lift the buckle … count the number of seats to the nearest exit.”

(As an aside, why don’t commercial airlines just put a label on each seat saying, “your nearest exit is three rows back”, that would save everyone from counting, which no one does anyway.)

However, on an LC-130 there are some serious things to learn.

Foremost among these is the use of the emergency oxygen. It isn’t just a little yellow plastic mask that magically falls from the ceiling. It’s a military-issue hood in a green bag that you unclip from the railing behind your seat, unfold, and then pull various tags to release chemicals that generate oxygen. You then put the hood over your head and, hopefully, breathe.

A side effect of the chemical reaction is that the chemicals get very hot, so you have to be careful not to touch the reaction chamber in the hood.

Apparently the first sign of aircraft decompression is that the aircraft immediately fills with water condensation, and then your fellow passengers start to lose consciousness.

An emergency oxygen supply hood in the LC-130. Michael Ashley

With the briefing over, twelve of us board the aircraft and prepare for take-off. With an explosion of noise we start barrelling down the runway, but after 67 seconds (yes, I was timing) the LC-130 shudders to a halt under reverse thrust. We then turn around and try again in the opposite direction. That also fails.

I’m getting a bad feeling about this.

Fortunately, on the third attempt we manage to lift our front ski and get airborne – nothing will stop us now.

We later learn from the crew that the snow was quite sticky and the wind was across the runway, which didn’t help. After the first two attempts, the skis on the LC-130 had made the snow sufficiently smooth that the final attempt was successful. Some deep-field sites (with a lot of loose snow) have required over a dozen take-off attempts.

The flight to the South Pole was uneventful and rapid – just 2.5 hours to go from latitude 78ºS to 90ºS.

The first hour of the flight took us over the spectacular Trans-Antarctic mountain range, riddled with glaciers and crevasses. It would be enormously difficult to cross this range without the benefit of aerial photography to know what lay ahead.

A typical view during the first hour of the flight to the South Pole. A glacier winds its way over a mountain pass to lower altitudes, forming a treacherous crevasse field at bottom left. Luke Bycroft

As the South Pole gets closer, the air pressure in the plane is reduced so that shortly after landing we will be at the same pressure as ice level, which corresponds to a pressure altitude of about 10,500 feet (3,200 metres) today. The pressure altitude can go above 12,100 feet (3,670 metres) when a low-pressure system passes overhead.

We start adjusting our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear in preparation for the Antarctic conditions, including our “big red” parka, gloves, balaclava, and ski goggles.

The landing on skis is beautifully smooth, and the LC-130 taxis to within 100 metres of the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Upon disembarking, the crew vigorously directs us to the right (left leads into the propellers, which is an easy mistake to make when you are disorientated by the cold, the low air pressure, and the desire to take photographs).

Within ten minutes we are within the warm station building, and are given our room assignments and briefing notes.

The US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Michael Ashley

The South Pole Station is dominated by the “elevated building”, a two-storey multi-wing structure supported off the ice by a number of large pylons. The elevation is necessary so that wind-blown snow can pass under the building rather than building up against the walls, and ultimately burying it.

The elevated building contains individual sleeping quarters for most of the 240 people on site, as well as a galley, medical centre, science labs, the communications centre, meeting rooms, a greenhouse, library, sauna, gym, and a few rooms for recreation.

Craig Kulesa, Abram Young, and David Lesser – all from the University of Arizona – are staying in the “summer camp”, which is a group of half-a-dozen Jamesway shelters about ten minutes walk from the elevated building.

One of the Jamesway shelters in summer camp. Michael Ashley

The sudden jump in pressure altitude from sea level at McMurdo Station (where we departed from) to 3,200 metres has a very noticeable effect on the body. After a few hours I start to get a headache, which, fortunately, does not develop into more serious altitude sickness.

Sleeping is also difficult at altitude, and the extreme dryness of the air can cause nasty skin conditions and nasal problems. A small cut of the skin can take a very long time to heal due to the dry air.

The air is so dry because it’s so cold that almost all the water vapour in the air has simply frozen out as ice crystals. In fact, when the temperature drops below -50ºC – which it will do as the sun begins to set in about six weeks time (the sun is up 24 hours a day here at the moment) – the air becomes drier than cylinders of commercial dry nitrogen.

It has been a long and eventful day, but prior to heading to bed we meet with Al Baker, a senior manager on station, and discuss our logistical and cargo needs for the next few days. Continuing a theme that is one of the defining traits of the US Antarctic Program (USAP), everyone we meet is keen to help us have a successful mission.

December 27 – Skidoo lessons

This morning I am feeling pretty rough, having had intermittent sleep and a headache. We are all strongly advised not to exert ourselves during the first couple of days while our bodies adjust to the high altitude.

Another quite noticeable impact of the altitude is that, with 30% less oxygen in the air, our brains are not quite as effective as they are at sea level. It is not a pleasant sensation, particularly when you are trying to doing something complex (such as debugging a tricky software problem) that you know you could easily handle at sea level.

In the morning we meet with COMMS (the communications people on station) and discuss our needs for radios and Iridium phones over the next month. I also arrange with Al Baker a way of putting an Iridium aerial on the roof of the station so I can have 24/7 internet access for controlling our experiments remotely.

The internet is otherwise only available at the Pole for about ten hours a day – the times when various decommissioned geostationary satellites peek above the horizon and we can latch on to their still-working radio repeaters.

At 11am the traverse team from McMurdo arrives. This group of ten or so people left McMurdo 27 days ago in a convoy of tractors pulling hundreds of tonnes of cargo and fuel. Most of the time was spent navigating around the treacherous crevasses on the way up to the plateau. They have to scout ahead with ground-penetrating radar-equipped vehicles to find a safe route, and occasionally have to dynamite crevasses to make snow bridges.

In a single traverse they bring in 10% of the station’s annual fuel needs, at a fraction of the cost of flying it in.

By 3pm all seven of our team line up at the “garage” for a lesson from “Kiwi Dave” on how to drive a skidoo. Kiwi Dave has a detailed knowledge of the mechanics of a skidoo, and his pre-use checklist involves a very thorough examination of the engine, gearbox, fan-belts, and tracks.

The maximum speed anyone is allowed to drive a skidoo is 15km/h, but just about everyone we see seems to be fanging around at 50km/h or faster. The dial on the speedo goes up to 200km/h, but I strongly suspect this would only be possible if the skidoo was air-dropped from a Herc (LC-130 Hercules).

Skidoo lessons. Michael Ashley

Before dinner I take some photos of the Ceremonial Pole, a fixed point in the ice, surrounded by the flags of the founding members of the Antarctic Treaty (see photo at the top of the page). I also take some photos of the Geographical South Pole a few tens of metres away, which is the point about which the earth rotates – or did rotate on Jan 1, 2011.

The ice sheet is moving at about ten metres per year relative to the rock which is about three kilometres below. As such, the Geographical South Pole will be repositioned in a ceremony on January 1, 2012.

The Geographical South Pole. The brass marker indicates the position of the Pole at Jan 1, 2011, within a fraction of a metre. Michael Ashley

It is impressive to see that my handheld GPS correctly directs me to the position of the new Geographical South Pole, and I am able to take a photo of it displaying a latitude of S90º00.000’, with the longitude varying wildly.

Unless there is a seriously well-funded conspiracy, there is no doubt I really am at the South Pole.

You can’t get much further south than this! The GPS is reading S90º00.000’. The Jan 1, 2011 Geographical Pole is to the right, and the Ceremonial Pole it further to the right. Michael Ashley

December 28 – Our first day of work at the Pole

After the last day-and-a-half of acclimatising, we are ready for our first productive day of working on our actual experiment. In the morning, two of the station crew, ably assisted by my fellow researchers Campbell and Luke, erect a “Polar Haven” tent near the Martin A Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO) building.

We will be using the tent to assemble the power system for our experiment. The tent provides complete shelter from the wind, and can be heated to above-freezing with only a kilowatt of electrical power.

Meanwhile, Yael (another fellow researcher) spins into action and rapidly organises all our electronic and mechanical components, and then starts assembling sub-systems for testing over the next few days.

The rest of us are busy on tasks such as bringing a prototype telescope down from the roof of the MAPO building.

MAPO is 850 metres from the elevated building and is an invigorating walk which we do six times a day (three in each direction). On calm, sunny days it is easy, but if the temperature is -25ºC with a [15 knot wind]( blowing it can be a bit more challenging.

Of course, the “winteroverers” (those who live here over winter) would laugh at -25ºC. They regularly have to endure temperatures between -60ºC and -70ºC.

I have been told that each ten degree drop in temperature is a “different sort of cold”. What you can get away with at -40ºC would get you into trouble at -50ºC.

For example, I can readily walk out to MAPO at -25ºC just with normal trainers and a pair of thermal socks, as long as I don’t stop for more than 20 minutes or so. But I know from previous experience that at -50ºC you absolutely need to be wearing the Antarctic-issue thermal boots.

At around -40ºC you only have about 60 seconds before exposed skin starts to get frostbite.

An example of some Extreme Cold Weather gear. The shoe and glove on the left are fine for -10ºC; the expedition boot and fur-backed gauntlets on the right are essential for -30ºC and below. Michael Ashley

December 29 - Solar panels installed

One of the main tasks for today was to assemble the solar panels that will provide most of the power for our experiment during the summer time.

We are using standard 195 watt solar panels, just like the ones you see on rooftops. These work just fine down to -80ºC. In fact, they work better in Antarctica due to the low temperatures, and the snow acts as a handy reflector, boosting the amount of sunlight hitting the panels. We can achieve 240 watts or more from a 195 watt panel.

While Campbell and Luke work on the solar panels, the rest of us are assembling and testing electronics.

Campbell and Luke assembling solar panels (the black square) with our Polar Haven tent to the right, and the ten-metre South Pole Telescope in the background. Michael Ashley

December 30 – Toga party

To conserve water, we are only allowed two, two-minute showers a week here at the Pole. The idea is to use the first minute to get wet, then turn the shower off and lather up, then use the final minute to rinse off. I’ve timed myself at 15 seconds to get wet, and 45 seconds to rinse, thereby allowing showering somewhat more often.

I feel much more human after a shower and a fresh change of clothes.

Water on the station comes from using heat from the main diesel generators to melt ice. This is done in a large underground cavern know as a Rodriguez well, or Rodwell.

Today is windy and overcast, making it much less pleasant to work outside. Campbell and Luke have to spend some hours outside to move the solar panel cube to a new location.

The ultraviolet radiation here is fierce – my UV-sensitive glasses go darker far more rapidly than they do in Sydney. Of course, with all the gear we are wearing, we are unlikely to get sunburnt, but snow blindness is quite possible if you don’t wear goggles.

Progress on our experiment is fast today. We have our 300 kilogram, 20 kilowatt/hour lithium iron phosphate battery pack connected, and our computer systems are online and networked to the outside world.

Luke assembling the solar panel cube. Campbell is inside on the ladder. Michael Ashley

In the afternoon, it is my turn to be a “house mouse”, which means I have to spend an hour or so cleaning out the toilet area on my floor of the building. All 240 people on station pitch in and do these tasks, and it helps to build the community spirit.

Another example of community spirit occurred this morning when a couple of large pallet-loads of goods arrived for the kitchen and needed to be moved up two flights of stairs. Following a station “all call”, we quickly had a group of 25 people forming a line to pitch in.

You get used to helping the community like this. I recall when I came back from an earlier trip to the South Pole I was relaxing at an outdoor cafe in Sydney when a truck turned up to deliver food to the restaurant. I was up and out of my seat to volunteer to help, but quickly realised that the gesture would have met with a stunned response, most likely assuming I was trying to steal the food.

In many ways, the South Pole community is an example of how people can live in harmony. We don’t have locks on our doors. Everyone is very helpful. Although I’m sure that there must be a dark side …

At 9:30pm there is a toga party scheduled out in the summer camp. Having had a bad experience at a toga party about 20 years ago (only one-third of the guests were told it was a toga party, another third were gay, and I can’t recall what the other third had in common) I decide to give it a miss.

December 31 – A marathon at the South Pole

The second South Pole Marathon is being held today, beginning at 10am. There are both half and full marathon courses, starting and ending at the Geographical South Pole. Mostly, the course involves running up and down the skiway where the aircraft land, but there are excursions to other places, such as the NGO (non-governmental organisation) camp and visitor’s center.

Conditions were fairly good for the race: clear blue skies, -26ºC, pressure altitude of 10,500 feet (3,200 metres), with a 13 knot wind. The wind is the real killer. Participants have to run with balaclavas covering their noses, else they run the risk of frostbitten lungs, which apparently takes a couple of months to heal and involves lots of coughing.

I am breathing fairly heavily just doing the 850 metre walk back from the MAPO building. It is hard to imagine that someone could actually run in these conditions.

Four people manage to complete the marathon – two of them had never run a marathon before.

The Dark Sector at South Pole, with a marathon runner about 20km into the race. The ten-metre South Pole Telescope is the silver dish. Our experiment is under construction in the dark blue Polar Haven tent. Michael Ashley

Another popular race at South Pole is the four kilometre Race Around the World, which takes place on Christmas Eve. The route literally takes you through all longitudes from 180ºE to 180ºW. About 30 people participated this year, and the fastest time was just over 19 minutes – very respectable considering the difficulty of running in powder snow.

The fastest man and woman in the Race Around the World are given the opportunity – flights permitting – to travel to McMurdo to compete in a running race there. They normally win since the training at altitude at the Pole gives a huge advantage when back at sea level. You feel like a superman for a few days until the oxygen-carrying-capacity of your blood returns to normal.

The visitor’s center at the Pole is an interesting development. It is a warm hut about 100 metres from the Geographical South Pole. The idea is to provide somewhere pleasant for the many unofficial visitors at the Pole to congregate. Incredibly, there are 91 visitors here for New Year’s Day.

The numbers are high due to the 100-year anniversary of the first trek to the South Pole – many of them skied the last degree of latitude from 89ºS to the Pole, a distance of roughly 110km. Apparently a skiing trip of this sort costs about $62,000 per person, once you consider flights and support.

Before the visitor’s center was erected, there was a lot of pressure from people to enter the US elevated building itself, and to take advantage of the showers, food, and medical facilities. It may sound harsh, but the US Antarctic Program policy strictly forbids visitors in the USAP buildings. With 91 visitors you can see how things could get out of control if they were allowed in.

The visitor’s center at the South Pole. 91 people are visiting South Pole at the moment for New Year’s Day. Michael Ashley

There are also strict guidelines as to where NGO visitors can travel near the station. For instance, they must not go into the “clean air sector” – an area upwind from the station where scientists take hourly samples of the pristine Antarctic air for climate studies.

Today was a busy day debugging and testing electronics and tweaking software to control our experiment. We have had a few mysterious failures of components, possibly due to static electricity which is a real problem in the dry air here.

Craig, Abram and David are making rapid progress on the telescope hardware and electronics. They are faced with a difficult decision: should they use an existing detector system that is known to work, or should they move the detector into a cryostat in search of a likely factor-of-two or -three improvement, but with the risk of possibly ending up with a non-working system? They will be wrestling with this problem over the next few days.

At one point in the afternoon I have to use an Iridium satellite phone to call Colin Bonner (also from UNSW) for advice – Colin designed the printed circuit boards we are using this year. He informed me that he was relaxing at the beach near Sydney – quite a contrast to conditions here at the Pole!

Happy New Year to everyone!

January 1 - Moving the Pole

On the first day of the New Year, it is traditional to have a short ceremony to celebrate the annual “moving of the Pole”. As mentioned above, the Geographical South Pole is roughly fixed with respect to the Antarctic land mass, some three kilometres beneath our feet but the ice sheet is moving with respect to the land by a quite-amazing ten metres per year.

This makes it necessary to reposition the Geographical South Pole marker. The markers are made of brass in the workshops here at the Pole, and are extraordinary examples of artistry and workmanship.

The new Geographical South Pole marker – a work of art. Michael Ashley

Some 40 or so people attend the ceremony at 7pm. Campbell and Luke are both wearing shorts and bare legs under their “big red” parkas. The reason soon becomes clear when they strip off their parkas to reveal singlet tops, and they pose for photographs behind the new South Pole marker.

Luke and Campbell experiencing the -24ºC temperatures (-35ºC with wind chill). Michael Ashley

Meanwhile, today was another busy day of work on our experiment. One of the key things we have to get right is the remote control software, since when we leave the telescope at Ridge A there is no prospect of returning until a year has elapsed.

As part of the test for this, I set up a computer in my room in the elevated building, and I am now able to monitor and control the hardware from my bedroom. When we deploy to Ridge A, the communication link will be via the Iridium satellite network, but for now we are using the extensive computer network that is available at the station.

At 8pm we have a weekly science lecture. Today’s speaker is Professor Bill Holzapfel – Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley – and he gives a summary of the impressive work being done by the ten-metre South Pole Telescope. This telescope is probing the earliest stages in the life of our universe, when it was only a few hundred thousand years old (compared with 13.7 billion years now).

Next week, Craig and I will be joint speakers at the weekly science lecture.

Further instalments in Michael Ashley’s Antarctica Diaries will appear on The Conversation in the coming weeks.

Follow the links below to read the previous instalments: