Friday, January 29, 2010

South Pole Summer Camping

I made it to the pole at about noon on the 27th. The flight was really smooth, and I spent about 5 minutes total outside that day (long enough to come to this shocking conclusion -- it's cold). After attending some briefings for people who've never been the SP before, I had lunch (veggie sloppy joes and cole slaw) and met all the IceCube people who are all being really nice.

The altitude has a really strong effect on you at first. All you want to do is sit like a lump on a log (my blood oxygen level was 80%, normal is around 90%). Walking around (especially with 20 lbs. of cold weather gear on) is really hard. The elevation here is only about 9,000 ft, but the effective elevation is above 10,000 ft because the Earth's rotation squeezes the air away from the poles. In addition to making you feel lumpish, the altitude also causes sleep apnea. The thing that controls when you body wants to take another breath is actually the CO2 level in your body. The doctor said the CO2 level in your body can be low enough that your body will stop breathing while you're sleeping. Of course then your oxygen levels drop down and you wake up gasping for air. They give you altitude medication that is supposed to help prevent the waking up gasping part. I think this is just because it makes you wake up all the time to pee.

On my first day I hung out with the IceCube people. One of my collaborators was even nice enough to give us newbies a ride out the Jamesways, so we didn't have to carry all our crap out there on the first day.

Since there's been some curiosity about my lodgings, I'll devote most of the picture-age to it. I'm staying in something call a Jamesway. It's also know as Summer Camp (a mis-nomer if ever I heard one, there's nothing summery about it). It's a fifteen minute walk from the main station building where I do most of my work. Here's a shot of the Jamesways from just outside the main building. They're the round blue things above the boxes. They are basically silo-like half circle buildings which are subdivided into rooms, so the roof and outside walls are curved. My outside wall is made of heavy green canvas. Yes, the only thing between me and the South Pole is a canvas wall. Here's some shots of the one I'm staying in (mine is the one in the middle).

I believe as many as 10 people can sleep inside them. Here's the hallway.

It's so dark because people have all different sleep shifts and I didn't want to use the flash in case anyone was sleeping. The Jamesway rooms are very small. There's only a single bed and a wooden cabinet. Here's my enclosure.

The green canvas on the left is the outside wall. Behind me there's a hanging curtain which you can pull for privacy. There's a heating unit in the center of each Jamesway, so it's warmer than outside. Basically everything that's under the blankets is okay, though I spread Big Red over my bed for a little additional warmth. I'm told that if you leave a glass of water on the floor, it will freeze by morning. I'll have to try that at some point. The canvas is mostly light-tight. There are a few leaks, but I avoid them by sleeping with a shirt over my eyes, which also has the benefit of keeping my head warm.

The best part about the Jamesways is that the bathrooms are closed because of a sewer pipe leak, so we have to use external, unheated port-a-potties instead of the heated, lit bathrooms with nice showers and washing machines. While I understand the importance of not leaking raw sewage into the Antarctic ice, I still wish I had a heated bathroom to use. Especially since the altitude medicine makes you pee a lot. My first night I got up to use the bathroom five times. I am now intimately familiar with exactly how little cold weather gear you need for the dash to the bathroom. Shaded goggles are the most important item, so the sunlight doesn't wake you up.

It's now the fourth day and I'm feeling a lot better. Still not much energy but that's because I got to go outside all day yesterday and visit IceCube. The weather was a little bad and it was pretty white outside. Here's a picture looking back at the main station from the IceCube Drill Camp.

The station is the dark blot in the middle. It looks worse on camera then it was. I walked around the surface above IceCube for a bit, then looked inside the big computer lab

where all the IceCube signals from the strings are brought together and processed. There were bundles and bundles of cables three inches thick coming into the computers. There were banks and banks of computers. There were so many computers that the building doesn't have to be heated, it has to be cooled. Then I helped pack up the IceTop camp for the winter (IceTop is the surface array above IceCube, it detects cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are a background for most IceCube analyses, except for mine where it is the signal). The shades that cover the IceTop tanks while they freeze had to be folded up nicely and put away in the right order so people next season can grab them and go. We were able to work inside something called the "Purple Palace" which was heated. Here's a picture of my collaborator mending a rip in the shade.
The shades that still need to be folded are against the far "wall" and the folded shades are to the left. Here's what it looked like after we finished, man, there were a lot of them, but it only took a few hours.

After that a bunch of other bits and ends had to be sorted (into those that can be left out to freeze and those which cannot).

All-in-all it was pretty awesome.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

To New Zealand and Beyond!

I'm writing this entry on the flight from Christchurch to McMurdo. More on that later, first let's catch up.
My flights went well. I watched Julie and Julia and The Hurt Locker. Both were good films, altough I was a little confused about why The Hurt Locker had gotten so many raves. Maybe because it's about soldiers, it automatically becomes extra high quality. Other than that, nothing really significant to report, except that I was actually able to get some sleep (yay!). My arrival into Sydney was delayed by 10 minutes, eating into the already plentiful *40* minutes I had to get through security and onto my next flight to Christchurch. The margin was close enough that there was an agent waiting for me at the ramp when I got off the plane. He led me through one of the those doors covered in red warnings to what appeared to be a secret security gate, where I was promptly singled out for extra screening. It seemed like a totally reasonable thing for the security personnel to do, especially considering that I'm already so late for my next flight that I had an escort. Fortunately I was able to make it onto my flight to Christchurch (they were also waiting for another few people from a different flight from LA). The whole thing made me really glad I only had carry-on luggage. I doubt checked luggage could have gotten on that plane.
Once I got to the airport, I headed for the Antarctic Program building. Fortunately, since I was probably not at my best after 16 continuous hours of plane flight, the path to the USAP building is marked by painted blue footprints. On the way there I spotted the plane that I am currently on.

Beyond saying it's a military plane I don't know much about it. Only that it's big.

It's about a five minute walk to the center, which apparently also markets trips to Antarctica for tourists as well (their slogan is "Antarctica: Visit For the Day"). The Antarctic Program building is actually quite nice looking. The front part is a museum and it's all rounded and blue with lots of glass windows (and penguins). Scientist don't go in that part, though. We go around the back, through a parking lot (and through a shrub wall, but only if you get a little lost, not that I know anyone like that) to some smaller more business-like buildings. My goal was the Clothing Distribution Center (or CDC as everyone calls it. Personally I always think of the Center for Disease Control, and it makes me want to steer clear of the whole place). The CDC is where you get all of your clothes that you will need for the extreme cold. It's referred to as ECW (for extreme cold weather, I guess gear is left off because ECWG is just one letter too many). When you first enter the locker room, the gear is in two innocent looking orange duffel bags (shown below with my valiantly overstuffed carry-on luggage for scale)..

Here's what's inside the bags, every piece of which has to be tried on.
It consists of (this list is even more impressive if you say it all in one breath):
Pair of Goggles
Hat (with earflaps and a drawstring, so styling)
Neck Warmer
Parka (the red jacket in the center, affectionately known as "Big Red")
Fleece Jacket
Another Fleece Jacket
Insulated shirt
Ski Pants (lying to the right of Big Red)
Fleece Pants (the gray things)
Medium Weight Pants
Light Pants
Two Pairs of Wool Socks
Air-Insulated White Boots (called "Fluffy Bunny Boots")
Two Pairs of Insulated Leather Gloves
A Pair of Woolen Mittens
A Pair of Leather Mittens (which go over the wool ones)

Here is what it looks like when it is all on:

Let me tell you, it is really hot! In the time it took me to walk over to the mirror and (successfully) take this picture, I was covered in sweat. They keep the locker room at a reasonable temperature, but I think they should crank it down to freezing temperatures so you actually want to try on all that gear.

Thinking about where I'm heading makes me glad I'll have all this stuff.

I want to pack all of my gear into these orange duffels (including the ECW). The weight allowance has been increased to 150 lb., so I wasn't concerned about that. However, I feel like bringing too much stuff to Antarctica would be sort of vulgar, so I plan to go through my luggage that night and filter out some stuff.
Fortunately there was still a few hours of sun after I finished everything, so I had a chance to walk around Christchurch a little bit. My flight left the next day at 9 am, but I had to be at the center at 6 am, so I headed to bed early.

Now I'm in-flight over the Southern Ocean, headed towards McMurdo. The plane is really cavernous and only about 1/2 filled with seats. The rest is usually taken up with cargo, though it only appears to be about 1/2 full as well. There are 55 people on my flight, which is enough room that we aren't crammed in like sardines. Most of the people I've talked to are planning to winter-over (they stay the whole winter in Antarctica, crazy as that sounds). The usual training for winter-overs is to send them to Antarctica at the beginning of the season (early November), get them trained up and then send them back to Christchurch for some R&R before their long, dark season begins. Many of them are returning on this flight, which is why there's such a large number of people flying so late in the season. I'm super excited about going to Antarctica, but I think it takes a special kind of person to stay there for the whole winter.

I'm going to go eat my sandwich now (they give you a brown bag lunch for the flight). Antarctica ahead!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Why (and When) Am I Going To the South Pole?

Because it will be awesome!

I'm lucky to be going to the South Pole to work on the IceCube Detector. Deployment of the IceCube Detector has been going on since 2004. When it's finished it will be a kilometer array of 80 strings, each with 60 sensors looking for light in the ice from neutrinos. Every year during the austral summer (i.e. now) large numbers of people head down to the South Pole to install new strings, do detector maintenance, and get their picture taken by the South Pole marker. This year we're planning to add another 18 strings and we should reach our goal of 80 strings next year. My job is to help figure out the exact position of every sensor on these new strings. Each sensor has a series of LEDs which I will be turning on for brief data runs. By looking at the arrival times of the light from the LEDs in the newly deployed sensors we can calculate their position.

Also I will be taking lots of pictures and posting them here, but I'm pretty sure that's not in my official job description.

I leave Saturday January 23rd at 10:50 PM. After a quick 40 minute stop in Sydney, I (and hopefully my luggage too) arrive in Christchurch at 2:05 PM Monday January 25th. Upon arrival I'm scheduled to get my extreme cold weather gear (pdf) so I probably won't be at the hotel until a few hours later.

The next flight to McMurdo Station (webcam) is January 26th. I'm assuming I'll be on it since I'm scheduled to be at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (webcam) on the 27th, but I won't know for sure until I get there.

Flights to McMurdo are on C-17s. Flights to the South Pole use LC-130 Hercules.

The South Pole station uses New Zealand time which is 21 hours ahead of PST (so effectively three hours earlier).

My return flight is tentatively scheduled to arrive at 8:55 PM on Sunday February 14th.