Monday, January 20, 2014

How did I get here?

It has been over a week since the team landed at the South Pole. We have settled into a routine of eating, sleeping and waiting for our flights to the payload. Weather, as always, is an issue. I wanted to briefly recap how we got here, and what we found when we arrived.

The journey from McMurdo to here was very uneventful and dare I say it pleasant. We flew on an LC-130 flight from Pegasus airfield (about an hours ride from McMurdo station) which took about 3 hours total. These Pole flights are generally not as full as the inter-continental flights, leaving lots of leg space and room to walk about if needs be.

Disembarking the plane at the skiway at the South Pole was certainly a colder experience than when we first arrived on the continent this season. Stepping into -25C with a windchill of -30C was certainly more like the Antarctic experience I recalled last year when landing in McMurdo in late October.

However, we were soon told that it was reasonably warm at the pole that day, and generally the temperature during the summer here is nearly always around -30C (~ -20F) with a windchill around -40C (~ -38F). Regardless, I was well motivated to move rapidly indoors, only pausing to snap a quick pic of our ride here.

Grant and John Mitchell in action pose.
The view was also something vastly different. The South Pole is on the Antarctic plateau, which is a featureless floor of white as far as the eye can see. No mountains or smoking volcanoes to break the horizon, only the Amundsen-Scott research station, a few outlying buildings and lots of cargo crates.

Once inside the station, we were brought to the galley where we watched an orientation video to accustom us to the life at the Pole. The sensation here is much different to McMurdo. While "MacTown" has the feeling of a mining town in the summer, Amundsen-Scott has the feeling of a space-station or a submarine. All the combination of steel stairways, long corridors with metal pipes and wires and thin windows looking onto a lunar surface give it that science-fiction feel.

The galley: Where I will spend about 80% of my time.
The population of the station is about 137 at our arrival, and we all have individual rooms which is a nice change from the shared dorms of McMurdo. The rooms are small and mine didn't have a window, but I am happy to have a little place to call my own. I have a suspicion prisoners may express the same sentiment when first shown to their cells however :).

My room, A-219.
To conserve water at this remote station we are allowed two, two-minute showers per week along with one use of the washing machines for laundry. The bathrooms for our "berth" (dorm area) are cleaned by the occupants of that berth. On the inside of your room door is a day, that is the day you are a "house-mouse", in charge of cleaning the bathroom. Myself and Thomas have Thursdays, and to be honest, it's one of the more satisfying things you can do on the station! You get into a rhythm of cleaning and actually see the sparkling results in the end. That is one of the only certainties you can claim on this continent (provided you do a good job of course).

Otherwise, I spend my time eating, reading, partaking in whatever recreational activities are going on and staring stoically out the window at the plateau. The internet is provided by passing satellites and so is only available for specific windows per day, naturally it is not extremely speedy so uploading pictures (and writing blogs) can be hit or miss.

However, soon I will upload my next posting: A Tale of Two Poles.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Another year on the Ice ...

An update from Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole.

Unfortunately, we will not have a full recovery of the SuperTIGER payload this season.

A huge difficulty in working in Antarctica is that all scientific and support projects are subject to the weather. One major slip can lead to a domino effect that causes disruption throughout the program. Coupled with that, a primary goal towards the end of the summer season is that everyone is removed from their field-camps before the onset of winter, this of course must take priority over everything. So resources become stretched, priorities shift and schedules and plans can evaporate over night.

The SuperTIGER recovery fell victim to a chain of events that started over a week ago. Due to warmer temperatures, the ice-runway at Pegasus (which is the primary runway when the sea-ice breaks up around McMurdo station) became unsuitable for the larger non-ski aircraft used to take passengers  and supplies to and from Christchurch (i.e. the C-17, the Australian Airbus A319). When I say unsuitable, what I mean is that the runway surface melted and became too soft for these aircraft to land safely. When that happens (like last season in fact), all of the inter-continental flight duties (along with all their original Antarctic support duties) fall to the LC-130 ski aircraft and the Air Guard. There were even less of these aircraft available this season due to the government shutdown, plus one of the primary and critical roles these aircraft play is in delivering fuel to the very station I am sitting in. That fuel is the life-blood of the Amundsen-Scott station during its winter months, hence it is vital that it is fully stocked with fuel before the summer season ends.

Now, for SuperTIGER we needed two LC-130 flights to successfully achieve our goal. Due to the remote location of the payload, we needed to have a fuel cache waiting to allow refueling of the recovery aircraft that would be transporting the deconstructed SuperTIGER. Once the fuel cache was parachuted in by the LC-130, then the groom-team would arrive to prepare a ski-way for allowing loaded aircraft to land and takeoff (remember?). Then, once they had set up camp, the science recovery team (i.e. us)  would land and begin our work in earnest.

The first domino to fall was the re-assignment of the LC-130 flights to taking passengers to and from Antarctica, already stretching the ability of the program to deliver fuel, remove camps etc. So our fuel cache mission was just not to be.

No fuel cache, no groom team, no planes to take SuperTIGER back to the SLW camp (for the second LC-130 flight to bring it to McMurdo, obviously redundant now) and so no recovery. Dominoes!

What we were offered instead was 1-3 Twin-Otter flights (the small fixed wing aircraft run by Ken Borek Air or KBA) to the payload, staged from the South Pole. Each flight would allow about 2-3 hours on the ground which is just not enough time to a) dig out the payload which is without doubt heavily drifted-in by a year of Antarctic weather and b) safely and carefully remove our sensitive and expensive scientific equipment.

However, you take what you can get down here, and so what we will do is survey and assess the state of the instrument, remove some of the easily (relatively) accessible electronics and communication equipment used by the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (the facility that manages the balloons, launch, monitoring etc.) and then strap things down as best we can for another Antarctic winter. Oh, and rescue our SuperTIGER mascot "El Super Tigre".

Uh ... guys? Little help?

However, not to worry, I will keep updating this blog for the remainder of our season down here. I hope to be on the second Twin-Otter flight to the payload (the first is a reconnaissance mission where Thomas Hams is the only science representative) and will share my experiences on that exciting trip (weather permitting of course!).

Furthermore, expect a few more updates on life at the South Pole. Touching BOTH South Poles (eh?), touring the tunnels under the station in -55C/-67F temperatures, getting to visit the nerve-center of the $300 million dollar Ice-Cube experiment and last but not least, watching Top Gun on VHS on movie night (as exciting as the previously mentioned? ... possibly).

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Onwards to the Pole

After a few days of finalizing our gear, we are ready to go.

If all goes to plan, this evening the SuperTIGER recovery team will be sitting in Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole. Internet connectivity will be limited there, but I certainly hope to update the blog in some capacity over the coming days. I also hope I won't be suffering the ill effects of being at altitude!

In Christchurch, we were issued "Diamox" (Acetazolamide) tablets which we are supposed to start taking the day before leaving for the Pole, these pills are expected to reduce the probability of getting Acute Mountain Sickness. The South Pole is at an elevation of 9,300 feet (2835 meters) but feels like 11,000 (3350 meters), this can go up to 12, 500 ft (3810 meters) with a low pressure system. The idea being that Barometric pressure decreases at higher latitudes. Flying from McMurdo which is at sea level to those effective altitudes within a 3-hour LC-130 flight will be quite a change to the system, so we need to take things easy upon our arrival. The diamox tablets don't taste the best and can have side effects of making carbonated drinks taste flat (not a killer) and of being a diuretic (more annoying than anything). I noticed fairly quickly after my first pill that I was getting very thirsty, so I've been drinking water steadily since yesterday.

Not Coca-Cola friendly.
In the meantime, life in McMurdo carries on. I've been catching up with old friends from last season and making new friends for this one. Coming back has been interesting because you see quite a few familiar faces but a large amount of new, things are familiar but you can still meet other interesting and fresh characters. I have spent a few nights in one of my favorite places in McMurdo station called the Coffee House. It is one of the original buildings from back in the days when the US Navy ran McMurdo, the building was previously the Officers club. Last season, the Coffee House only sold one thing ... coffee (however you could bring your own alcohol there if you wished). This season however you can now buy bottles of white and red wine if you're feeling classy. The place is a perfect spot for a relaxed night where you can catch up with people, write post-cards or work and sometimes there will be a live music session in the corner (which is really excellent).

The Coffee House.

Otherwise in my free time (which has been limited with all the prep work), I finally got to take a stroll over to another one of my favorite spots in McMurdo, Hut Point. Here is where you will find a shelter (Discovery Hut) built by Robert Falcon Scott way back in 1902. Last year I had the pleasure of getting to tour the inside of the building, still filled with supplies and clothing from the previous occupants on Scott's expedition. This season the hut is undergoing a preservation scheme to mitigate the effects of over a century of Antarctic weather. This undertaking is managed by the Antarctic Heritage trust, a non-profit operation which aims to protect several historic Antarctic sites. It didn't make for the prettiest of pictures, but preserving the history of those first intrepid explorers for future generations is undoubtedly worth it.

Discovery Hut and the preservation plans.
I carried on past Discovery Hut to get a look at the ice-shelf, you can see that it is breaking up nicely. Didn't happen to see any penguins or seals on this trip, but I hope to get out this direction again soon.

View of McMurdo sound with Vince's Cross, dedicated to Seaman George T. Vince who drowned nearby in 1902.
One fairly surreal thing that I saw on my walk to Hut Point was a softball tournament that was taking place at the cargo-staging area by the Ice Pier. This tournament started at 11am and went on until 5pm, the field was complete with bleachers, sausages and beer. I don't think I've ever seen such a heavily dressed group of softball players in my life. Unfortunately with just four SuperTIGER team members (including two Europeans who are more used to kicking things with their feet), it was an unfortunate but sensible idea to not enter a team.

McMurdo Station Softball World-Series Extravaganza (a name I've just made up).

Anyway, the adventure continues at the South Pole.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Getting ready for the show

Since arriving at McMurdo, the SuperTIGER recovery team has been busy getting ready for heading out to the payload.

What does this involve? The answer is, a lot.

The logistics of flying people and equipment around the remotest and most inhospitable place on Earth (although that may currently be the mid-west United States) is something you don't really grasp until you sit down in meetings (scientists, NSF and McMurdo logistics etc) and flesh out all the details of your trip. Thankfully the brunt of that work was felt by Thomas and John (who had done this kind of thing before on the recovery of the BESS-Polar II payload in 2009). As the new guy, I found the organization and logistical planning around working in the "harsh continent" fascinating.

To get to the SuperTIGER payload, we need to transport ourselves (the 4-member science team) and up to 2000 lbs (910 kg) of recovery tools and camping equipment from McMurdo station to the Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole (~ 920 miles/1480 km), then from the South Pole to the payload site (a further 540 miles/870 km) and our awaiting camp/groom team. Before all that though, you need to get fuel out to the payload site (for the planes to refuel) which means an LC-130 needs to perform a "fuel drop" near the site (parachuting a pallet of 40 fifty-gallon fuel drums to the ground successfully). Once that fuel drop is completed, then the groom team can fly out on Twin-Otter aircraft to prepare a ski-way (i.e. a runway on which heavily loaded aircraft can takeoff safely) along with the general camp. All of this involves several disciplines and departments:  fixed-wing (for aircraft), fuel, cargo and Berg Field Camp (the BFC) amongst several others. Add the famous unpredictability of Antarctic weather to the mix, and you have yourself a logistical headache. 

All you can do is plan for the worst, be flexible and don't panic (too much).

The last few days has seen the team rifling through shipping containers, compiling and organizing all our tools needed for recovering the payload (i.e. screwdrivers, drills, saws, drill-bits, rope, wire-cutters, clippers, ratchets, sockets, hammers, ice-pick, shovels and so on). You can be sure there won't be a Lowe's nearby if someone forgot to pack a 1/4" combi-wrench.

Some of the recovery items needed were actually being kept at the NASA Long Duration Balloon (LDB) facility out at Willy Field (about 6 miles/9.6 km away from McMurdo station). Unfortunately due to the government shutdown last year, the entire ballooning season was cancelled (resulting in the cancellation of two scientific-payload launches and one NASA test balloon launch, just one of the many scientific casualties resulting from the shutdown here in Antarctica). This meant the facility was never really prepped for the summer season.

Due to the warm weather here in McMurdo, the roads out to LDB and the Pegasus airfield are in very poor condition, hence all wheeled vehicles are banned from traveling on the road (except for the Deltas and Ivan the "terra" bus shuttling people to and from Pegasus). However, we needed to grab our stuff, so we were kindly helped by our local National Science Foundation representative Brian Johnson who provided transportation to LDB in the form of a tracked "Pisten Bully". These tracked vehicles can seat six (without any gear in the cab) quite comfortably and truck along at about 8 mph!

Tuesday morning at 830am, Brian started all four of us on the road to LDB.

John, Brian Johnson and Grant ready to roll.
It was going to be nice to be heading out the LDB facility again, without doubt my favorite commute in the world. This time however, I wouldn't be riding the warm and (relatively) comfortable Ivan the "terra" bus but this motorized box on tracks.

A box.
A box with a seriously beautiful view though.
Once we arrived at an eerily deserted LDB facility, we entered into one of the payload buildings (where we had been told our things were left) and loaded up the Pisten Bully. As this only took about 10 minutes we decided to have a walk about and take some pictures.

The view from the LDB payload buildings. Not everyone works near a volcano.
Retrieving the gear.
Mt. Erebus.

The way out to the launch pad. Usually there is a road-way here, another casualty of the shutdown.

Brian was very kind and acted as our personal photographer while we made suitably grandiose poses in front of Mt Erebus and the surrounding area. It was definitely chillier out at LDB than at McMurdo so our modelling session was cut short for the warmer confines of the Pisten Bully cab.

Winter catalog.

Getting chillier.
On our way back, packed in and surrounded by our tools and cold-weather gear (with my lower back receiving a thorough and unwanted massage from the Pisten Bully trundling over the snow and ice) we had one of those special encounters unique to Antarctica. An Emperor penguin was spotted (Grant had seen him the previous evening at Happy Camper school in this area). It is not unusual to see Emperor penguins alone in a remote area, where they molt in peace. This one was hanging out about 30 meters from the road. We stopped and from a distance took some photos so as not to disturb him unduly. Personally, I thought he looked fairly miserable (although in fairness, I'm no penguin psychology expert).

Miserable? You decide!
 Last year when I left McMurdo, I finally saw an Emperor (also molting and solo) at Pegasus airfield. I never really expected to see another (except at a zoo maybe) so it was an affirmation for me that you just can't tell where you may end up again in the future.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Catching my breath

It has been a whirlwind week since I left St. Louis for Antarctica.

St. Louis to LA, LA to Sydney, Sydney to Christchurch, Christchurch to McMurdo station. Planes, trains and automobiles. Moving from winter in the US to summer in New Zealand, crossing from the northern hemisphere to the southern, 3 continents, many airport coffees and lots of music. Never living the 31st of December (I crossed the dateline on my flight from LA to Sydney) I managed to "celebrate" New Year's eve by texting with my family back in Ireland on my 8 hour layover in Sydney airport (the benefit of being ahead a day). Arriving in Christchurch at 2am, taking the same shuttle service like my previous trip to the same hotel again, I was almost expecting to get the exact same room to really make things surreal.

I rendezvoused with Thomas, John and Grant the following morning and since our flight to McMurdo on January 3rd was cancelled due to poor weather in Christchurch (high winds) we used the opportunity to visit Arthur's pass (about a 2.5 hour drive away). I never went to the New Zealand countryside on my previous trip and I can say I certainly wasn't disappointed. John Mitchell drove us through the stunning Southern Alps where we stopped now and then to sample the sights and sounds of the New Zealand outdoors. Sacred Maori caves, limestone outcrops like castles, from beautiful sunshine to torrential rainfall and spectacular waterfalls ... along with lots and lots of sheep. I soaked it all in as much as I could with my jet-lag nagging at me to sleep, because I knew that this was not an opportunity that comes often.

Castle Hill.

Waterfall in Arthur's Pass.
Once we returned from our day-trip it was time to get re-packed and ready for the flight to McMurdo. We were leaving the hotel at 630am for check-in at the US Antarctic Program (USAP) center, so I can't claim I got a nice lie in. Acting on semi auto-pilot, next thing I know I am waiting in the "departure" lounge watching NBA basketball (on the US armed forces network no less) along with several introduction videos to life in Antarctica (take home message: don't harass the penguins).

The waiting room ... sports provided free of charge.
Next thing, we're sent through a security check before being bussed out to the waiting LC-130 transport. I try and get a good look at the greenery around the airport on the way, it'll be over a month before I see a tree again. We took a photo before boarding the plane, looking fresh-faced and full of energy. It will be interesting to see how we look after one month on the harsh continent ...

The SuperTIGER recovery team (science), from left: Thomas Hams, John E Ward, Grant Mitchell, John Mitchell. Photo provided by Thomas Hams.

The LC-130 flight to McMurdo station take over 8 hours. Things are loud enough that you need to wear ear-protection constantly, so conversation is limited to say the least. I read, slept, listened to music and ate our provided lunch (sandwiches, crisps, bars and an apple). I was surprised at how fast the time passed and before I knew it I saw people begin to stir and excitedly look out the windows and photograph. I knew what this meant ... Antarctica was in sight. I looked out my nearest window and saw we were coming in over the Ross ice shelf (which had started to break up), that feeling of visiting an alien world had returned again. I was really coming back.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Back to the Ice!

Hello all,

My name is Dr. John E Ward, I am a Research Scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. Last year, I spent 96 days in McMurdo station working with the SuperTIGER balloon-borne payload.

After SuperTIGER's extremely successful (and long) flight during the 2012/2013 Antarctic summer season. It came to rest via parachute on February 1st 2013 at the following coordinates:

82°14.80’ S, 81°54.72’ W

Otherwise known as "the middle of nowhere".
The middle of nowhere.
It being so late in the season, with personnel and camps being removed from the field, there were no resources available to mount a recovery of the payload. Hence, SuperTIGER was left at that location until a full recovery could be attempted the following year. Well, that time has come!

Last year Ryan Murphy, our graduate student working on SuperTIGER at WashU, did a fantastic job updating this blog with the day-to-day happenings of life at McMurdo station. I am also going to try and share my thoughts and experiences from my second trip to "the ice" as one member of the SuperTIGER recovery team.

The science members of the recovery team consist of Dr. John W. Mitchell and Dr. Thomas Hams from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Grant Mitchell, a technician from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County along with yours truly. Furthermore, we will be supported in the field by three survival experts/mountaineers/camp managers/superheroes called Scott, Lance and Bill (the "groom" team).

Our route to the payload will consist of an LC-130 flight to the South Pole (Amundsen-Scott base) where we stay the night before taking a Twin-Otter flight to the SuperTIGER payload. Next, we will spend up to 10 days (depending on weather and travel etc) camping by the payload, deconstructing it and preparing it for removal from the field. The return trip will bring us and the payload back to McMurdo station via the Subglacial Lake Whillans camp. Once in McMurdo, we pack the SuperTIGER detectors into a shipping container for shipment back to the United States ... simple!

Yesterday, the science team arrived in McMurdo station without any major disasters. The weather is a balmy 35F (2C) and spirits are good. Since I'm still getting settled, it will take me a few days to get into full "blogger" mode ... but please stay tuned! I plan on updating people on our flight down and the first few days getting acclimatized again to life at McMurdo station, Antarctica.