Wednesday, January 30, 2013


I'm in the Christchurch airport now, where we just watched our first sunrise in three months. I'll have a longer post up once I've got time, but here's a sneak peak:

This emperor penguin was just hanging out at the airport while we were waiting for our flight.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bag Drag and our last day in McMurdo: January 29, 2013

With our scheduled departure for Wednesday, January 30, JohnE, Thomas, and I had our last day in McMurdo today. Thomas and Sean went out to LDB as usual for last-minute packing and preparations for shipping (and delicious lunch). In McMurdo, I went to the store before lunch (last-minute shopping!) and then hiked out to Hut Point after lunch. I spent most of the afternoon packing up all of my stuff and forcing everything to fit into the two bags I brought with me. I also cleaned up my half of the room and made sure everything was ready to go.

Just before dinner, I got an email with details about our flight and the "Bag Drag" operation. I walked over for dinner and to double-check the manifest. After dinner, I headed back to my dorm to make sure everything was packed up. At 8:00pm, I was supposed to be up in the McMurdo Movement Control Center to check in for my flight tomorrow morning. Since I wasn't sure how easily I'd be able to get all of my stuff over there, I left my room at 7:45.

I got outside my dorm to find two pickup trucks waiting to ferry people and their luggage up to bag drag, and was offered a ride, so I threw my bags up on the truck and rode in the bed with a few other people the 200ft or so up the hill to the MCC. Once inside, I had to label all of my bags with my name and flight number (GCH063). Then, we waited in line until it was our turn to check in.

First, they checked my passport and gave me my arrival card for immigration and customs in New Zealand, and double-checked that I had the appropriate Emergency Cold Weather (ECW) gear with me. Then, they weighed all of my checked bags to make sure they were below the 150lb limit (when I weighed them earlier, I had about 80lbs of stuff). Then, I had to climb on the scale and be weighed along with my ECW gear and carry-on bag. I'll have to be weighed again tomorrow when we leave.

With our transport out to the airfield scheduled for 7:15am, we went out to Southern Exposure for one last night out with the friends we've made in the last few months in McMurdo. We said goodbye to Elio from BLAST, Asad, Michele, and Chappy from EBEX, Jessa the cook, who was responsible for our food, especially the delicious prepared salads, Pat, one of the technicians out at Pegasus Field, Lee the Packers fan (who I begrudgingly wished the best and that the Packers win one fewer game than the Vikings next year), and others. After that, I walked out to Hut Point one last time. There weren't any penguins, and the wind was pretty strong, so I went back in shortly thereafter. Then it was time to take a shower (I'm not making the same mistake as Richard, who packed away his towel, and then was stuck for 3 days, but I also don't want a wet towel in my carry-on bag tomorrow morning), check email, update the blog, and then I'll get to sleep soon.

I'll keep updating the blog through our trip home and the rest of our flight (and whatever recovery operations Sean gets up to). I'm not sure yet how long I'll have in New Zealand (flights out aren't confirmed yet), but I'll keep things posted.

The last few months have been an amazing experience, and I'm surprised at the number of people that have told me they've been keeping up to date with the blog. Thank you, everyone, for reading and all your support.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Last Weekend in McMurdo: January 26-28, 2013

In the past few days, it's suddenly sunk in how soon we're actually leaving McMurdo. After Wednesday, only Sean will be left for whatever attempts at recovery we're able to get this season. Saturday I walked out to Hut Point to check for penguins (there were none). The winds were picking up and it was starting to snow, so I went back inside and did laundry for the last time. 

Saturday JohnE and I met up with Erica, a friend of ours from St. Louis, who had just returned from four weeks in the field doing seismology work. Apparently people at her field camp saw the Super-TIGER balloon fly over just before Christmas. We also got reports from members of the BARREL experiment, who are launching balloons out of the British base at Halley Bay, that Super-TIGER flew over there and looked like it was going strong. We're now two and a half times around the continent and over 50 days of flight. 

Sunday it continued to snow, so I caught a shuttle over to the Scott Base store for some final souvenir shopping. I left this a little late, so the selection in the McMurdo store wasn't great and Scott Base had a few things I wanted to be sure I got. Sunday night we went to Burger Bar at Gallagher's again for dinner, which ended up being delicious like last week.

Monday I started packing everything up and trying to make it fit in my suitcase. So far, it looks like everything is going to fit, but I still have to get my room cleaned and my cold-weather gear sorted tomorrow. 

Since we need to pack up our office in Crary Lab, we're in the middle of our last monitoring shift. We already cleaned everything out and vacuumed, and when we're done with the shift we'll turn off our local monitoring computer and pack it up to ship back to St. Louis. Tomorrow it's time to finish packing and get everything ready to go to leave early Wednesday morning ("weather and logistics permitting", as the McMurdo Housing email said). 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

No update today. For the past several days, everyone in McMurdo has been concerned about an aircraft that was flying from the South Pole to an Italian base that was overdue by quite some time. This morning, Kenn Borek air, the contractor that operates the overdue plane and the other small aircraft on continent, released the following statement:

Friday evening Calgary time, a C130 Hercules aircraft of the New York Air National Guard made visual contact with the overdue aircraft in Antarctica. The sighting was confirmed approximately thirty minutes later by a Kenn Borek Air Ltd. Twin Otter aircraft deployed in a search and rescue (SAR) role. The crew of the SAR Twin Otter reports that the overdue aircraft impacted a steep snow and ice covered mountain slope. No signs of activity are evident in the area surrounding the site, and it appears that the impact was not survivable.
Due to the terrain and ongoing weather conditions, the SAR Twin Otter was unable to land near the site. Subject to favourable weather conditions, helicopter crews and mountain rescue personnel will attempt to access the accident site Saturday morning Calgary local time.

 The thoughts and prayers of the entire Super-TIGER team are with the family and friends of the Kenn Borek crew.

Friday, January 25, 2013

January 25, 2013

Thursday, Sean and Thomas headed out to LDB to work as usual. In town, I walked out to Hut Point to check for penguins (there were none). On the way back, I ran into JohnE, who was doing the same thing. I hiked around the Observation Hill loop again and found a lot more of the snow melted, which is nice.

We're about halfway around our third orbit.

Otherwise, there isn't much going on with Super-TIGER here. JohnE, Thomas and I are scheduled to leave next Wednesday, January 30th, and Sean is now planning to stay until February 11 to do whatever recovery operations we're able to do this year. It's strange to think that a week from now--assuming nothing gets ridiculously delayed--I'll be on a plane on the way back to the states.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

EBEX terminates, and a hike through Arrival Heights: January 24, 2013

Towards the end of our monitoring shift last night, EBEX's flight was terminated and the payload came down on a parachute. They're located in Victoria Land, a few hundred kilometers north-west of McMurdo on the plateau. It sounds like they may base their recovery out of the Italian base, which sounds like a fun place to visit.

This also means that Super-TIGER is now the only CSBF balloon payload flying over Antarctica (there are a few balloons from the BARREL experiment launched from the British and South African bases up there). We're almost halfway through our third time around, and seem to be basically following our first trip around the continent.

Today we had a very calm day, so after my typical walk out to Hut Point to check for penguins (there were none. It was sad.) I decided to hike up the Hut Point Ridge through Arrival Heights. JohnE, Thomas, and I had done this hike back in October when we first arrived in McMurdo.

Halfway up the hill is a memorial to Richard Williams, who died in McMurdo sound in 1956 when his tractor fell through the ice (Williams Field is also named after him). This memorial has a statue of the virgin Mary and is known as "Roll Cage Mary" around McMurdo.

Normally, the ridge gets really windy, but today it was calm and I barely felt any wind at all. From the top, there were some very nice views looking north into McMurdo Sound.

There also were some great views of Mt. Erebus.

There are a couple of experiments housed on top, and I was able to get some good photos from the road. Officially, the areas off the marked path are restricted, so I wasn't able to get much closer.

 Sean and Thomas went to high-altitude training just in case our payload comes down at a similar elevation Otherwise, there isn't anything else interesting going on down here with Super-TIGER.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Another Day in McMurdo, a Fake Trophy, and then I found $5: January 23, 2012

Wednesday we had great weather here in McMurdo--just about freezing, clear skies, basically no wind. I hiked the Observation Hill Loop and there was a lot more snow on the path than there normally is. The snow we got the other day hasn't had a really good chance to melt yet.

And then I found $5.

This is the last place I ever expected to find a random $5 bill.

Otherwise, there wasn't much exciting going on here. JohnE and Thomas covered the first part of our McMurdo shift while I went to play in the Wednesday night soccer game. EBEX is expecting to cut down in the next day or so.  Elio from BLAST once again did not get on a flight out to their payload, but he did tweet out this photo from when they got out there yesterday:

Side note: through the Photoshop skills of the team back at Wash U, we now have a picture of an awesome real-looking trophy for the longest Antarctic balloon flight. This trophy does not exist. But I kind of wish it did.

I wish this actually existed. Actually, it would be really awesome if there were just a bunch of random NASA trophies floating around travelling between collaborations. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Observation Hill Cross Centennial: January 22, 2013

"Tuesday, January 22. Rousing out at 6 a.m. we got the large piece of the cross up Observation Hill by 11 a.m. It was a heavy job, and the ice was looking very bad all round, and I for one was glad when we had got it up by 5 o'clock or so. It really is magnificent, and will be a permanent memorial which could be seen from the ship nine miles off with a naked eye. It stands nine feet out of the rocks, and many feet into the ground, and I do not believe it will ever move. When it was up, facing out over the Barrier, we gave three cheers and one more"--Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, pp. 338

A hundred years ago today, the surviving members of Robert F. Scott's Terra Nova expedition erected a cross on top of Observation Hill, overlooking the Ross Ice Shelf ("the Barrier") and McMurdo Sound. The cross, a permanent memorial of the deaths of the five members of the Polar Party, still stands and is still visible from miles around.

The five members of the expedition that had made it to the pole--Scott, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans, Henry Bowers, and Lawrence Oates--all died on their return journey. Evans died at the base of the Beardmore Glacier (which Super-TIGER flew over a few days ago), while Oates famously left the expedition's tent in the middle of the blizzard with the words "I am just going outside and may be some time" and was never seen again, sacrificing himself so the others might continue without being slowed down by him. The other three died in their tent about 11 miles from a depot full of food in late March 1912.

They were discovered by the rest of the expedition in November 1912, and plans were made for a memorial.

Observation Hill was chosen for reasons that Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of the expedition, describes here:
"Observation Hill was clearly the place for it, it knew them all so well. Three of them were Discovery men who lived three years under its shadow: they had seen it time after time as they came back from hard journeys on the Barrier: Observation Hill and Castle Rock were the two which always welcomed them in. It commanded McMurdo Sound on one side, where they had lived: and the Barrier on the other, where they had died. No more fitting pedestal, a pedestal which in itself is nearly 1000 feet high, could have been found"--Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, pp. 338

The names of all five members of the polar party are inscribed on the center of the cross.

The inscription, from Tennyson's Ulysses, was also a matter of some debate:
"There was some discussion as to the inscription, it being urged that there should be some quotation from the Bible because "the women think a lot of these things." But I was glad to see the concluding line of Tennyson's "Ulysses" adopted: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"-Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, pp. 337

Since today was the centennial, JohnE and I hiked up the hill shortly after lunch. The recent snowfall made this a bit more difficult than it had been in the past, and the wind was blowing quite a bit, but we made it to the top and got treated to an amazingly clear view of the surrounding area. It really is amazing that a wooden cross has been able to withstand the winds of a hundred years of storms basically unscathed.

In other news, Elio from BLAST was finally able to get out to the payload today and get their data and other important equipment. They're planning on one more flight out (hopefully tomorrow) before leaving the rest for the returning South Pole Traverse (considerably more equipped than Scott's party) to pick up.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Breaking the Record and a visit to Cosray: January 20-21, 2013

On Sunday morning, Super-TIGER surpassed CREAM I's duration of 41 days, 21 hours and 31 minutes to become the longest Antarctic Long-Duration Balloon flight!

We're still about 1/3 of the way through our third time around the continent, so we'll certainly make the record a lot harder to beat in the coming days. 

Sunday afternoon the McMurdo team got a tour of the Cosray (short for Cosmic Rays) building near McMurdo from Paul Evenson of the University of Delaware. This building houses the longest-running experiment in Antarctica, a cosmic-ray neutron monitor that first went online during the 1959-1960 season, although it was moved a year or so later so that it would be farther away from the nuclear power plant (which no longer exists).  The Cosray building is about halfway between McMurdo and Scott Base, so we drove by it every day on the way out to LDB.

Inside the building, there's a small kitchen set and a living room with some couches and a bookshelf full of physics reference books.

We first went into the data room, where three laptops are continuously working and sending data off-continent over the internet. There's a very sensitive barometer, which is necessary for making corrections to the data that is recorded. Cosray is just one of several ground-based neutron monitors scattered around the globe, with other stations in places like Greenland, Thailand, and Delaware.

In the main part of the building, the detectors are surrounded by lead rings and covered in blue foam. 

In the back of the room is a "Bit Bucket". Initially, all of the data was recorded on punch-tape to be read out by computers later. This bucket has all of the punched out chads.

We also got to see the machine that makes the holes in the tape.

The walls of the building are colorfully painted, including a description of cosmic rays interacting in the atmosphere.

There is also a lot of art scattered around the building. For the first 30 or so years that the experiment operated, a scientist would winter over to keep an eye on the equipment, and apparently would have nothing better to do than paint.

Once we got back outside, we had to get back on the main road. The snow that's been accumulating the last couple of days made this a little difficult.

Eventually, Thomas had to get out and shovel, while the rest of us remained inside the van providing moral support.

When we got back to town, we went over to the McMurdo station sign to take a photo with a sign JohnE and I had made on our shift to celebrate breaking the record. 

After that, we went back to the dorms for a bit...with a stop to throw a few snowballs on the way.

Dennis, JohnE's roommate, returns fire.

Sunday night we went to Burger Bar at Gallagher's, where we had burgers and fries in the bar before our monitoring shift. This was the right way to celebrate breaking a ballooning record.

Monday wasn't particularly exciting. After lunch, I talked with my family back in the states, and then walked out to Hut Point. The strong winds and deep snow dissuaded me from also doing the Observation Hill Loop. Otherwise, it was a pretty normal day, and we had another not-so-exciting monitoring shift at night.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The PM visits McMurdo, More Snow!, and a Cancelled Marathon: January 19, 2012

Saturday morning we woke up to a couple inches of snow covering all of McMurdo. I went over to our office in Crary early to answer some questions about Antarctica for my mom's first-grade class. While that was happening, we got an email reminding/informing us that John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand was going to be touring Crary in a short while. I hung around the extra 20 minutes or so until the PM came in, and got a glimpse of him and his party while I walked down the hall to the bathroom. I saw the group he was with again when they came upstairs and went to lunch, and got to see the PM patiently waiting in line for some Frosty Boy.

It kept snowing most of the rest of the day. I talked for a bit with Peter Rejcek, the editor of The Antarctic Sun in our office, and JohnE was there for the last bit as well. At dinner we found out that the McMurdo marathon, which was scheduled for tomorrow, had been cancelled. This doesn't impact any of the Super-TIGER people directly (we're not insane), but Elio from BLAST had been planning to run, and hopefully defend his 3rd-place finish from two years ago.

They cancelled the marathon just because there was a little bit of snow.

During our shift, we met some of the people from the lab across the hall, who are doing work on a robotic arm with the hope of including it on a future robotic mission to Mars. They went out and found a great spot for sledding, with improvised cardboard and trash bag sleds. It sounded fun, so we're going to give it a shot once our shift is over. We also ran into Dr. Stan Love, the astronaut who was Bob's roommate back before we launched, who is back from the field. He said that they could see our balloon in the sky for several days when we were down south earlier this week.

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Day Off, Scott Base, and NSF Reception: January 17-18, 2013

Over the last two days, Super-TIGER has gotten out of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and moved roughly back to the same path we took on our second trip around. Starting the third revolution in earnest also means that CSBF's tracking image now shows our second revolution in blue, along with our first revolution in green and our current track in red.

Thursday night, Thomas took over the shift in McMurdo, meaning JohnE and I had the night off. During the day Thursday, I wandered out to Hut Point (no penguins, although Asad and Michele from EBEX saw one just before I went down there, and Thomas saw a bunch closer to dinner) and then hiked the Observation Hill loop (no close Skua sightings this time).

After dinner, I started walking over to Scott Base with JohnE and Elio from BLAST. It's about a 40 minute walk, so we got to the Scott Base store about a half hour before it closed. I got a few souvenirs and gifts (and also some shampoo, since I accidentally left my shampoo bottle in the shower last week and it walked off before I remembered that, and then the McMurdo store was out of shampoo, and isn't expecting any for a couple of weeks). Sean, who had taken a shuttle over, actually beat us there and was in the store when we arrived. We then went to the Scott Base bar, which has great views of the surrounding area and (now melting) pressure ridges.

Eventually, we walked back to McMurdo and stopped by to bring Thomas a cup of coffee from the dining hall. While JohnE was carrying the coffee on the way to Crary, a skua flew about a meter over his shoulder, having recognized that he was carrying something and wanting to see if he'd drop it.

After lunch on Friday (5-cheese grilled cheese and cheddar-apple-bacon sandwiches. It's a harsh continent), JohnE, Sean, and I headed out to Hut Point. Somehow, Sean hadn't been down to Hut Point before, so we gave him the 30-second tour of all the sights. There were no penguins hanging around today, and the wind was pretty strong, so we went back into town.

Earlier in the week (and I'm still not entirely sure why) I got an email inviting me to a reception for some of the Assistant Directors of the National Science Foundation, who were touring the NSF facilities in Antarctica these past couple of days. I also got to meet the director of the NSF's Office of Polar Programs.

(As a grad student, I have to report that the free food at this reception was top-notch, especially the Chicken Satay and the Fried Cheesecake, which I was skeptical of but tasted really good). 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Back to Charted Territory and Skua Close-up: December 16, 2013

Wednesday I woke up earlier than usual for a conference call with our collaborators back in the states. Our payload has come northward quite a bit in the past day or so. At the end of our McMurdo monitoring shift last night, the balloon had just barely reached 85 degrees south, the furthest south that Google Maps bothers providing any data.

This morning, Super-TIGER passed over the Beardmore Glacier, the route taken by Shackleton to the polar plateau and later by Scott to the South Pole itself. The balloon continued to drift north-west over the Trans-Antarctic Mountains for the entire day.

Otherwise, life continued as usual here in McMurdo. Thomas and Sean worked out at the LDB site again today. The BLAST payload recovery team has been hoping to get out to BLAST this week, but every day so far there have been weather problems either here or there.

I went for a quick hike around the Observation Hill loop. About halfway through, I heard a squawking noise, and turned around to see a skua heading right towards me. Since interfering with the wildlife is forbidden under the Antarctic Treaty, I stopped walking until the skua flew away.  Once it was gone, I took out my camera and continued walking.

I walked about another 30 seconds before the skua decided once again to fly right at me. Again, I froze, but this time I snapped a few photos as it went by. I waited around for about five minutes, and then continued on, having seen no sign of the skua after that.

Angry Skua!

Out of Focus Angry Skua!

Otherwise, there were just a bunch of seals lying around on the ice shelf lazily. There was apparently a large group of penguins a half mile or so off on the sea ice that Thomas saw earlier in the day.

Thomas offered to take over our McMurdo monitoring shift tomorrow night, giving JohnE and I a rare day off. We'll probably head over to Scott Base in the evening for the store (I need to start actually buying souvenirs and stuff now that our time here is almost over) and bar.