Time seems to move quickly at the south pole. I already have a sense of disconnect from the "real world", and I've been here only 3 weeks. The election proves mildly diverting to us polies, but surreal. Perhaps it seems the same way in the states!
For news, we get the New York Times Fax, an 8 page digest they put together and "fax" to us every day. Its an interesting editing job, condensing all the news into 7.5 pages (the crossword gets a half page). I'm sure its foolish, but the truth is what is happening in the rest of the world loses importance down here.
I arrived here on Friday the 27th of October. A few more flights trickled in over the next few days before the weather worsened, apparently, in McMurdo. Then it worsened here and we had a pretty awesome "storm". Visibility was perhaps a few hundred feet, almost a total whiteout. There wasn't any snow coming down; the 25 knot winds merely blew around the loose top layer of snow. All outside work shut down for a day, giving the feel of a holiday. The kitchen crew still had to work, as did I and others. There was a group of winterovers (who had just finished wintering) who were waiting to leave. It was 9 days before we got another flight in.
It is cold enough that the planes never turn off their engines. After the plane touches down, but before it starts to brake, they do what is called "combat unload" of the cargo. The back end of an LC-130 has a pair of doors that open up like a jaw. The load master opens the doors while the plane is still moving and gives the pallets a good shove, and they go flying out the back of the plane. It reduces the amount of time the plane is on the ground! Once the plane stops, the PAX (passengers) pile out, new cargo and pax are loaded, and they take off. When the first flight came in after the weather hiatus, all the winterovers loaded on, only to make over 10 attempted take offs. The plane couldn't get off the ground. They jettisoned some of the cargo (trash, to be returned to the states), then they had all the pax clamber to the back to try and weight down the back end. Eventually they had wasted enough fuel that they needed to re-fuel, so the pax came wandering back into the galley for some hot chocolate. About 1/2 an hour later they returned to the plane and successfully took off.
About 20 minutes after that we heard an all-call (an anouncement over the public address system, a good way to get a hold of people who aren't at their desk) that the flight was returning. They couldn't get one of the skis up (the landing gear at pole is skis, not wheels), and they didn't have enough fuel to fly all the way to McMurdo with both a full plane of people/cargo and the ski down (which causes a tremendous amount of drag). The pax were transferred to the second plane that had come in, which was a tanker-it brought a planefull of fuel and no doubt smelled strongly of JP-8. Not a pleasant ride, but the pax did eventually make it to McMurdo.
Flights came in normally the next few days, but starting late last week the weather detiorated again and there haven't been any flights. Visibility is down to 1/4 mile today. Its fun, because it isn't really threatening in any way. There is plenty of food and fuel, its relatively warm, and I can easily see where I'm walking to when I go outside.
My job is beginning to settle into a routine. Most of the projects are dormant over the summer, but the PIs (the "principal investigators", a.k.a. the scientists whose projects I'm running) have begun showing up, and will continue to arrive all summer, keeping me busy even if there is no data! This week there are two men here for the all sky camera, which takes pictures of the aurora. They brought a replacement lens and CCD camera with them, and we are retrograding the older equipment. The camera consists of a very nice Nikon fisheye lens, with a 180 degree field of view, valued at several hundred thousand dollars. It needs some repairs, so it is being temporarily replaced. The pictures are captured digitally, with a CCD (charge coupled device), as opposed to on film, and fed straight into a computer. When the PIs are here, I do a lot of their leg work for them--not only am I better acclimatized to the altitude, I know where things are, or at least who to ask!
The most interesting part of my daily routine is changing the paper on the helicorders, which are large rotating drums that record the output of the seismometers. I change them every day at 0 GMT (most of the computers have their clocks set to GMT, and when my watch arrives it will also be set to GMT--i can more easily figure out local time from GMT than vice versa (i am ruled completely by my stomach and my bladder here!), and there is less consequence if i miscalculate local time). Then I inspect yesterdays record for any earthquakes, getting their rough time off the paper record. I pull up the electronic data around the time that I noted and pick the exact starting time of the event electronically, along with the amplitude and period of the waves.
The first wave that arrives from any earthquake is called the "p wave" (the slower, later one is the "s wave"), and a p can travel across the entire globe within about 20 minutes. By coordinating arrival times from seismic stations all over the earth, the USGS (US Geological Survey, at the NEIC, National Earthquake Information Center) can determine the epicenter of the quake.
The seismometers are located in a vault about 1/8 mile from the dome, and are about 20 feet below the surface. I normally go down there once a month to realign them, however I made two extra trips last week to re-seat some cables and to attempt, unsuccessfully, to unlock one seismometer that has been out of commission all winter. The ladder down into the vault is frightening, but I after the second trip in two days I felt at least ok about climbing down. A challenge, for sure!
The temps have been pretty steady in the 30s. So far I haven't had any problems at all with my asthma. In fact, the only time I have needed my inhaler was in McMurdo, after attempting to climb Ob Hill. I'm relieved that asthma doesn't appear to be a problem for me--that could have made it a difficult year! I definitely still feel the altitude, but I don't mind pausing on each landing to catch my breath. Its 62 steps up to my lab--50 on stairs and 12 on a ladder. A bit of a climb, but it also relagates the space as mine-- its the top floor of a building, and most people think the ladder goes up to a roof, so they don't even look up. As isolated as this station is, its actually rather hard to be alone. Over 200 people are crammed into a pretty small station. I do spend time in my room alone. Its nice to have a place where I can be alone, or also can invite a few people up and we can actually talk and play music without being interrupted or disturbing anyone else.
We were all issued a pair of insulated overalls of the brand Carhartt. This is definitely a south pole fashion. I somewhat misunderstood when I was trying mine on at the CDC--I had the impression I wanted them to fit over all my other clothes, so I tried them on over two pairs of long underwear, a set of fleece, and some other stray items. In order to be able to bend at the knee with all this and my Carhartts, I kept going up in size. Well, in the summer you don't really need all those layers, so I find myself swimming in my Carhartts! I was able to switch them out for a pair a little shorter (I was looking very hip-- the back of each pant leg was fraying from dragging on the ground, much the way of popular fashion amongst the teens these days!), but just as loose. Its nice having a "pouch" to carry things. I often resemble Mary Poppins when I arrive at the galley--item after item gets pulled out of my overalls and placed on the table, much to people's amusement. I think I'll stick with the big size--I'd like to be able to wear them in winter over additional layers. They are about the toughest piece of clothing I've ever worn (yay!) and I plan on completely replacing my wardrobe with a full line of Carhartt products on my return home!
I made some friends over in the met (meteorology) department, and since I like to hang out there, most of the station thinks I'm in met and I get asked a lot of questions. Its pretty amusing. They've also given me the nickname hurricane, which fits my personality pretty well!
Life is good here. It really is an awesome group of people, and life is pretty easy. I don't mind the weather, I never feel cold. The food is good and someone else makes it, laundry is free, and we get paid to be here!! And personally, I think we get the coolest clothes! I do miss my cat and my family and friends.
copyright 2000 Andrea Grant
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