my trip to the Antarctica and the South Pole

Friday, May 27, 2005

South Pole Gas Station and Other Winter Fun

South Pole Gas Station and Other Winter Fun

I think this might be the only place in the world where Americans can buy gas for less than 2 bucks a gallon. When I need some gas for my snowmobile, I just pull up here and crank out the gas free of charge. Of course, it requires a little more arm muscle to get my 5 gallons. It's about 40 cranks to fill up my snowmobile, and the handle doesn't exactly turn easily in -90F. But, I'll take this gas station over any one that's trying to sell me their version of the Big Gulp with an advertisement on the handle of every gas nozzle.

Almost everything around station that's outside is covered with a layer of crystal snow by now, and a lot of things are completely drifted in. Seeing something like this back home in winter might mean it hasn't been touched in months, but here, this kind of snowy covering forms on everything almost immediately, and it just has to be brushed or shoveled off every time it needs to be used. That's just part of the job.

Working outside in the dark and cold has taken some getting used to, but I've nearly perfected my methods for dealing with it. Hand and feet warmers, multiple layers of fleece covering my face, a head lamp, and my hood that extends out to stop the wind have become my regular work attire, and I hardly think twice when I put them all on just for my morning "commute." I no longer dread the times when I have to do a delivery outside, and I'm even glad to be one of the few people who has to go outside every day for my job. It's very disorienting to stay inside the station for an entire day, although many many people do it on a regular basis.

It's so cold today that the elevator and hoist that are normally our redundant systems for getting the week's supply of food up into the galley are both out of commission. That means that we chain-gang the boxes of food up the 3 flights of stairs by hand in -90F. Everybody comes out to help out with this process as part of our "house mouse," which is what we call our weekly chores that everyone has to do to keep the station clean and running. We are our own janitors and dishwashers in the winter, which I'm happy for because it makes the station seem more like our home.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

the southern lights

the southern lights

yesterday the skies exploded at the south pole. Ken had just stopped by where I work, and we were both stepping outside--me to shovel out my door, and him to finish his maintenance rounds on station. we didn't have to look up to notice. the auroras were everywhere. for about ten minutes, the two of us might have been the only ones watching, in an understood moment that was both solemn and exhilarating. purples and greens skidded and unraveled across the sky, horizon to horizon. it was a showcase of undulating patches of wispy lightness, thin lines of bright ribbons, radiating rolling beams like an aurora sunshine, and unfolding ferns growing and retreating across the sky. completely mesmerized, we stood in the bitter cold, heads facing upwards, spinning around and around to see it all.

it was a while before we heard the announcement over the speakers. then, within minutes, we started seeing the brief white lights spilling from doors opening and then closing all over the station. people emerged with immediate exclamations, looking skyward. soon figures got closer and every one of us stood staring up in utter amazement--some laughing, some silent. work ceased on station.

i did not know there was anything in this world so spectacular and magical, yet so real. it was like a vision not quite realized when you close your eyes, but painted on top of an immense starry backdrop...a dream world exquisitely come to life...the language of a greater power, or of an inner self. i guess things like this are why it's possible to be so happy somewhere so remote and barren--singular showcases of nature's secrets.


Monday, May 02, 2005

another day at the office


Well, instead of sending another picture with the sky being an even darker shade, I think I'll take this little entry to tell you about what the heck I do here. Many people ask that. I ask that actually.

First, a bit of background. Not everyone here is a white-lab-coat-sporting scientist. In fact, those people, "beakers" as we call them, are actually in quite short supply. There are about 10 people here this winter who are actual beakers--employed by whatever institution or university is doing the research. The rest of us work for Raytheon, and in one way or another support this scientific research. I support it rather closely, as I am in the small department called "South Pole Science Support." There are 3 people here this winter who are in this department. The rest of the 86 people here support science in some farther-removed kind of way, such as cooking, doing construction, management, or materials handling. So that's a little background of where I fit in.

My job is to maintain, monitor, and move the coldest stuff on the planet while at the coldest place on the planet. Some people would say that they need my job for times when the South Pole just isn't cold enough. In fact, I deal with stuff that is about 350 degrees fahrenheit COLDER than the ambient temperatures here, which have been approaching -90F lately. So, yep, sometimes it's just not cold enough here. Why? Read on...

The cold stuff I deal with is liquid nitrogen and liquid helium. Liquid helium sits somewhere around -450F, and liquid nitrogen is about -300F. The beaker's telescopes have small detector arrays at the target of all the optics, which detect different kinds of radiation, like microwave, or infared. (These would be kinda like the CCD in your digital camera, only detecting different ranges of the spectrum that aren't visible light.) So they use these ultra-sensitive detectors that have to be super-cooled to make them "quiet" enough to detect the tiny radiation, and also because they have metal parts that are superconducting. So, I work with scientists to get them the cryogenic liquids that make their astronomy detectors work.

When I'm not actually schlepping the cryogenic vessels around on my snomobile sled through -80F temps freezing my fingers and such, I'm sitting in the midst of about 12,000 gallons of liquid helium inside huge vessels that I babysit. I do things like set up my computer to monitor the supply, and run plumbing to vent the gas that is constantly evaporating from the liquid, keep records, do maintenance on the plant that makes liquid nitrogen, and other lab-type things. I sometimes call myself Domino's Cryo though, because the most well-known of my job duties is delivering cryogens to the different telescopes, which are about a half mile away from station and from where my lab is. Luckily, right now, that only takes up about one morning per week of my time. This photo was taken after one of my recent cryo deliveries through -80F temps.

So that pretty much comprises the 54 hrs per week that I'm working. I'll write another one about all the amazing, adventurous, and exhilarating South Pole-type things we do in our free time here-- like knitting.