Sunday, January 24, 2010

Short time

I'm leaving the South Pole in about 30 hours, so I haven't done much except work since I'm tying up a few loose ends.

I think Sabrina's able to finish her work, though while I'm in Christchurch I'll be checking my email and chat to see if she needs any help.

I was able to make one big improvement in my data acquisition software and I'm hoping to finish off another big feature before I get on the plane tomorrow.

I also did my House Mouse duties today. Everyone takes turns cleaning their shared bathroom, and the IceCube people also have responsibility for cleaning up B2, the big science area where most of the scientists work as well as B1, the lounge across the hall which has a foosball table, a pool table, bookshelves full of books and a sitting area where a group of IceCubers generally gathers each night to sit and talk (and drink). Those cleaning duties are referred to as house-mousing.

Once I leave here, I'll spend another night in McMurdo before I'm finally off the continent.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Work and play

Today I helped my co-worker Sabrina read data from the three new strings which have been frozen in ... it can take up to a month for the water surrounding some of the strings to completely freeze. Also, because it's warmer a kilometer below the ice than at the surface, the strings freeze from the top down. We found a couple of minor problems with my software, but everything else looks good and we should be ready to take data tomorrow from the old IC59 strings as well as the 13 new strings which are ready.

The South Pole International Film Festival was fun. None of the entries would be mistaken for professionally made films, but they were mostly entertaining. The IceCube party was also a good time. I even managed to make it back to the station by 5AM and get in a few hours' work!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Busy night

I'm still working the night shift. Today I'll probably work until 10AM then get to sleep because "tomorrow" is busy. At 5PM there's an IceCube barbeque. At 7PM, the South Pole International Film Festival (SPIFF) will be held in the galley, showing films made by people here at the South Pole. After SPIFF, the IceCube party will be held in a building at summer camp, a short walk north of the station (because almost EVERY direction is North from the station!)

I'll let you know if I get any work done after the party!

Done with drilling

I finished at drill camp yesterday, so I'll be working in the station for the rest of my time. The 20th hole was finished a couple of days ago, so the drillers are now tearing everything down and packing it away for winter.making sure it's all ready for a quick start next season when they drill the final 7 holes.

While I was at drill camp, I got to drive a 287 (a little forklift machine) out to the drill site where one of the drillers hitched the 287 to a fuel tank. I then followed him as he towed the drill building back to the main camp (that's me in the rear view mirror, and the red box is the building):

Here's the 287 parked in front of the TOS. The white tank in front of the building is the fuel tank (after it was reattached):

When everything is packed up and ready to be stored, they'll hook together all the buildings in drill camp and tow them to the berms, an area of land dedicated to long-term storage. The buildings will sit there (along with all the other equipment which isn't needed during the winter) all winter long. The snow piles up against them all winter, so one of the first jobs when people start arriving in October/November will be to uncover the buildings and haul them back to the new drill camp site

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Correction to my last post

The woman who was supposed to arrive today at noon apparently missed her bag-drag last night so she could not get on the plane today. Instead, all IceCube people have been invited to sign the last DOM to go into the ice this season, so I'll walk back out to drill camp at around 9AM and get my name buried in the ice!

Working, copying, greeting

The last hole of the season is being drilled today, so the final string should be deployed by tomorrow morning. 20 strings were added this season, for a total of 79 strings in the detector. There will only be 7 new strings next season, so the IceCube detector will likely be complete before the end of the year.

Today I started work at drill camp, copying all the drilling and deployment data to a portable disk drive which I'll carry back to Madison and save to an archive. It'll be used to diagnose problems and possibly aid in analysis of future scientific data.

At around 3AM, I headed over to the IceCube Lab building to take down parts of the detector in order for one of the I.T. people to upgrade the network cards on all our machines. Fortunately, the ICL is only 500 yards from drill camp ... in past years it's been far away.

The data acquisition software (a.k.a the DAQ) runs on over 70 machines -- and growing, because each string requires a separate server. We'll need over 100 machines when the detector is complete.

I don't have much else to report, because I practically slept the day away yesterday! I was going to try and stay up until noon, but I hit a wall at 10:30 and managed to stay asleep (aside from a couple of half-hour stretches of lying awake) until 6PM. As I've written before, everyone has sleep problems here, primarily because of the low-oxygen environment. Getting 7+ hours of sleep was a pleasant surprise!

I wanted to stay up until noon yesterday because I'm going to need to be awake at noon today to greet a passenger on an incoming plane. The passenger is a postdoc who will be checking out all the new strings and making sure they're ready to
be included in the data acquisition runs, and I'll be standing by to help with any DAQ-related problems.

Tomorrow should be my last day at drill camp. It'll also begin my last week at the South Pole.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Earning my pay

I'm working two jobs at the South Pole. My first job is to support the software which controls the drill that makes the holes for the strings of sensors. Once drilling ends (in a day or two), I go back to doing the job for which I'm normally paid, working on the data acquisition software (which pulls the data out of the sensors, throws out as much garbage as possible, then packages up the remainder for uploading via satellite to computers in Madison)

Since I'm on the night shift, I went to sleep a bit after noon yesterday, then woke up at around 4:30PM. I was still in my room at 5PM when someone from drill camp called my room to tell me that when they tried to start up the drill software to drill the final hole of the season, it didn't work! I quickly dressed, grabbed an IceCube snowmobile and drove out to the drill camp. (Fortunately, I had gotten certified to drive a snowmobile about 6 hours earlier.)

It took about 3 hours, but we eventually fixed the problems with the drill software and by 9PM I was back in the station eating a couple of bowls of cereal. I went back out with the night shift drill crew at 10:30PM (which is the usual time I start work), then came back for midrats (the midnight meal for the night shift) and stayed at the station to finish working.

In a way, it was fortunate that I was able to work the rest of the day at the station, because I needed to do laundry. There are washers and driers on the first floor of the station, along with detergent, all available for free -- though we're only allowed one load per week. These machines can be busy during the day, but they're usually wide open at 3AM.

One bonus of doing laundry is that I hang my jeans in my room rather than running them through the drier. As I've written before, there's almost no humidity here (because the moisture freezes out of the air), so the drying jeans act like a humidifier!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Frozen treats and other sweets

One of the most treasured machines at the South Pole is the Frosty Boy, a soft-serve ice cream machine. Unfortunately, Frosty Boy spends a lot of time either broken down or out of ice cream.

As a stopgap measure, the head cook had a bunch of ice cream treats delivered from New Zealand ... I've seen popsicles, Drumstick-like ice cream cones, and chocolate coated ice cream bars. He also sent out a warning that if everyone has a frozen treat with every meal, we've only got enough to last for a couple of weeks, but if people only have one a day, we'll make it to the end of the season.

Fortunately, the ever-present (and legendary) cookie cart keeps my sweet tooth satisfied! So far I've come back with one new cookie recipe each year

The first year, they had some incredible s'mores bars which I've since made a few times -- when I brought Christmas cookies down to my parents' house for the holiday, one of my nieces asked if I'd brought s'mores bars as well

The second year, they had some really good cranberry and white chocolate chip cookies which are a big hit with my family.

I haven't found the "must have" recipe this year, but I've been here less than a week!

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I'm still adjusting my sleep schedule from days to nights. It's made easier because the sun is up 24 hours a day, but I'm still not quite there. Also the idea of a day gets a little fluid ... I arrived Monday at noon and it's now Friday morning, but I've only had 3 "days", each about 28 hours long.

Yesterday (which started Wednesday at noon) I had my first day of work, starting at 10:30PM. Unfortunately, there was a minor disaster with my normal IceCube job, and I ended up staying up until 10AM to get the problem fixed. I got a bit of sleep, but woke up at 11:30AM to meet the incoming plane, because an IceCuber who was arriving had been nice enough to carry a few items I had forgotten. After that, I was agitated enough that I only got a few more hours of sleep, so I spent the last half of my work day today fighting to stay awake.

There is a low, dense layer of clouds here right now, which makes it hard to walk (because the dimness hides any details in the all-white landscape. The clouds extend to the horizon, so when you look out at the distance, you see nothing but dim whiteness everywhere!

I just got off work, and rather than go to breakfast, I'm writing this entry and then going to SLEEP! Good night (or day) all!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I'm on night shift, so I've got to quickly switch my sleep schedule over. This first day I was here, I managed to stay up until midnight before I crashed, and last night I made it to 4AM.

Yesterday I walked out to the IceCube Lab (maybe a mile from the main station) to deal with a software emergency, then popped next door (about 200 ft) to drill camp to say hi, then over to themost recently drilled hole, where they were deploying a string of DOMs.

Tonight I'll report for work at 10:30PM and see if I can make it until 7:30AM!

I'm going through the usual adjustments:

- I'm taking diamox to avoid altitude sickness (the South Pole is effectively at around 12000 feet above sea level) which gives me prickly fingers and toes (like they've just fallen asleep. That'll stop after I finish my last day of pills tomorrow.

- Walking the half-mile or so from the station to the drill camp leaves me winded (again because of the low oxygen due to the effective altitude.) That'll get better in a week or so, especially after I resume running on an elliptical machine. Unfortunately, a month of running on the elliptical last year DIDN'T give me the stamina of a Kenyan runner when I got back!

- The bloody boogers have started! The South Pole is one of the driest places on Earth because all moisture freezes out of the air. I assume that lack of humidity causes a bit of trauma to my (and virtually everyone else's) sinus cavities, enough to cause a slight discoloration of one's "nasal discharge." It's a little disconcerting the first time it happens, but it's a totally normal part of the South Pole experience.

I'll get my first 2-minute shower in a day or two!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'm at the South Pole!

We took off from McMurdo today at 9AM. On the 45 minute ride out to the Pegasus airfield, we saw 5 Emperor penguins, which we took as a positive omen!

The plane ride took 3 hours, after which we FINALLY landed at the South Pole airfield. Lots of IceCubers came out to greet us, and after we dumped our stuff off (I got a room in the station instead of staying in one of the Quansit huts in "summer camp"), we went and had lunch (and saw more IceCube people)

I get a day or so to settle in, then I'll find out which drill shift I'm working. In the mean time, I'll try to acclimate to the low oxygen, 0% humidity environment!


I FINALLY saw some penguins at McMurdo!

First, some background. Hut Point is a steep hill on the outskirts of McMurdo, about a 10 minute hike from the main building. The hill itself stands above McMurdo Sound, which is largely covered with ice (though the icebreaker ship is making its way in and will probably be here in a few days) with some open water right at the base of the hill, though the hill is too steep to get close to the water.

As I wrote earlier, there was a rumor that penguins were sighted near Hut Point. A group of us went out after lunch and didn't see any penguins, but someone out there said he'd seen the penguins that morning, so we concluded that maybe they came around to feed in the morning.

This morning, I got up at 8AM and walked out to Hut Point, but again didn't see any penguins.

We're (ideally) leaving for the South Pole tomorrow, so after supper a group of us walked out to Hut Point for one last attempt to see penguins. There were already a few people out there, and they said that there was a penguin swimming in the water at the bottom of the hill and a larger group maybe a quarter mile away. Within a minute, the nearby penguin popped out of the water onto the ice, and in a few more minutes the group started moving toward us.

After about 10 minutes, they made it down to the water near us and, after a bit of shuffling around, they all jumped into the water and were swimming around for quite a while.

I got quite a bit of video, but since I forgot my camera cable, I can't upload it for a few days, and depending on the size I MAY not be able to upload it until I get back from the Pole (because there's only a limited Internet connection being shared by everyone down there)

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Lots of choices

They only added 5 guys to the bunkhouse and none of them were loud snorers, so the sleeping situation is still not too bad.

Last night was spent hanging out with some other IceCubers, playing pool and drinking a couple of beers.

Today there are a wide array of choices of activities!

The big event is a Kiwi vs. Yank rugby game over at Scott Base (the New Zealand base about 3 miles away). The Americans generally lose this game, but it's supposed to be a good time.

The shuttle busses leave here at around 2:15PM and return at around 6PM. Another event is the "penguin tour", where a limited number of people are driven out to an area with a bunch of Emperor penguins in couple of Deltas (big trucks with a box on the back which holds 14 passengers relatively comfortably, so they usually squeeze in at least 16 people.) Unfortunately, I learned about the tour when I went into dinner last night, and by the time I got out, the sign-up sheet was full.

The option that I'm leaning toward is a climb up Observation Hill, a 750 ft hill next to McMurdo topped by a cross memorializing the demise of Scott's party, followed by a nap, and capped off with a shower!

Later today we'll find out if there's a flight to the South Pole tomorrow.

Friday, January 08, 2010

More on the Hotel California

I forgot to explain the title of the last post. I'm staying in a dorm called "Hotel California", right next to the "Mammoth Mountain Lodge" dorm. I'm in the "bunkhouse", which is a fairly large room with twelve 2-person bunk beds. This could be a bad situation, but so far has been pretty nice because there are only three of us in there, while other IceCube people are staying in the main building with 6 people in a much smaller room!

There is a plane due in today, so given my luck this trip, it'll likely be full by tonight!

Welcome to the Hotel California

The flight today was cancelled -- rumor is that a plane broke down at one of the field sites, so our flight crew had to fly out there with a repair team. There are no flights tomorrow (because it's Sunday here), so I'm stuck in McMurdo for at least two days.

I did some work this morning, then a group of us walked out to Scott Hut, one of the huts used by Robert Scott on his expedition to the South Pole, where a seal carcass killed by that group is still visible. The rumor mill reported that penguins had been sighted, and while someone out there confirmed that he had seen penguins there this morning, there weren't any at that time.

The next entry or two will probably be boring ... check back in a couple of days for exciting South Pole action!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Back in Antarctica

I finally made it to McMurdo. We did the usual routine -- up at 5:30AM, get to the Clothing Distribution Center, put on our gear, check in, wait for a couple of hours, go through the metal detector and get on a bus, out to the airplane where I always make sure to grab a side seat -- more legroom, then a 5 hour flight followed, most importantly, by a landing!

Among the crowd waiting to get on our plane and go back to Christchurch were a couple of IceCube people so I chatted with them for a bit, then got on one of the waiting transport vehicles for the 30 minute(/) ride into the actual base -- the plane lands out on the ice field, far from the "town", just like most airports.

We filed off the busses and into the galley where we sat for another half hour while they gave use the standard briefing, then got our room assignments -- I'm in a dorm bunkhouse in "Hotel California" which sleeps 24, I'm hoping there aren't TOO many other people staying there!

I picked up some linens, went out to the dorm, and made my bed then got back to the main building just in time for dinner (a so-so steak, mashed potatoes, carrots and bread) and finally went to the computer area to get online and assure my wife that I was still alive.

In another half hour I'll do a "bag drag", where I'll haul my carry-on and winter gear out to the departure building. I'll be reunited with my checked luggage (which I haven't seen in a couple of days), pull out a couple of changes of clothes (in case we get stuck in McMurdo for a while), then get weighed with all my stuff and re-check my non-carry-on bags.

I'm not sure when I fly out tomorrow, but the weather report seems promising, so my next post will likely be from the South Pole!

Tomorrow for SURE!!!!

The B&B manager woke me up this morning top let me know that the flight was cancelled, so I was able to sleep in until 8AM. After breakfast, I went out seaching for a coffee shop to do some work. I couldn't find any with either available power or free WiFi, but there was a nice one with outdoor tables where I set up shop -- until it began to sprinkle after 40 minutes or so.

I came back to the B&B for a bit, then went to a different coffee shop (indoors this time, WITH a power outlet) and worked for ~5 hours, then ate some Thai food and headed back to my room.

I'm supposed to be out front again tomorrow at 5:45AM, so I'm optimistically going to bed at 9:30PM!!!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Made it to McMurdo (sort of)

I got up this morning at about 4:30AM (I wanted to "sleep in" until 4:45 but I guess I was too nervous) and was outside by 5:05AM to wait for the shuttle to take us to the CDC by 6AM. When no shuttle showed up by 5:35, one of the other people called a few taxis and we made it there exactly at 6AM. Once at the CDC, we all put on our extreme weather gear, checked our bags and got weighed wearing our gear and holding our carry-on bags and boomerang bags, if any.

A "boomerang bag" contains any gear you don't want in your carry-on, but you will want if the flight boomerangs (i.e. returns without making it to McMurdo.) If the flight boomerangs, your checked bag stays at the CDC (all the checked bags are actually piled onto a pallet and wrapped in plastic for the flight, so it's not easy to return them) I stuffed a change of clothes into my computer backpack, so I just had a carry-on.

Once everyone was checked in, we waited around until 9AM, watched a video on what to expect in Antarctica, then piled onto busses and were driven about half a mile to the C-17 military jet. Eventually we took off and settled in for the 5 hour flight to McMurdo. One nice thing about military flights is that they allow the passengers to get up and wander around (as long as there's no turbulence)

We got to McMurdo and the pilot announced that there was nasty weather at the moment so we went into a holding pattern. After about 15 minutes, the pilot said we weren't going to be able to land at McMurdo, so we were returning to Christchurch.

So I'm back in Christchurch for another night! Fortunately, since we don't need to check in bags or sit through the video, we don't need to be outside for the shuttle until 6:15AM!

Here's hoping that we make it tomorrow!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Failure to Launch

I woke up at around 3AM because I was nervous about the flight today. Turns out I didn't need to be, because the flight was delayed until tomorrow. Nobody knows why yet.

So I have a semi-free day!

I'm going to use part of it going back to the CDC with my computer, to get it certified for the Antarctic network. (The IT person verifies that it's running an anti-virus program, that it's not infected with anything right now, and that you don't have any filesharing programs)

Sunday, January 03, 2010


One thing I hope to avoid tomorrow is the dreaded boomerang.

It's about a 5 hour flight from Christchurch to McMurdo on the coast of Antarctica. Because the weather can always change in Antarctica, it's possible for us to leave Christchurch and have a bad storm blow in before we arrive. There's a point in each flight where the pilots decide whether they need to turn back. If they do that, it's called a boomerang flight.

I've never had that happen, though one of the other IceCube people I'll be flying with tomorrow was on a flight which boomeranged, and then the next three flights were cancelled, so he didn't get to McMurdo until 5 days after he was scheduled to arrive there. I'm hoping I'll never experience a boomerang flight, though I have had one cancelled flight ... a horrible hardship when you're forced to spend another summer day roaming around Christchurch rather than pulling on all your winter gear and going to work at the South Pole!

The CDC in CHC

Today I went to the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) and got my extreme weather gear. I've done this enough that I'm almost (but not totally) an expert.

I was the first person waiting for the shuttle and got mildly worried when the second person showed up carrying their large backpack, because I was pretty sure we didn't need to bring anything. I was happy to find out that he had been backpacking around New Zealand and was just storing his gear at the CDC while he was working in Antarctica.

I spent the morning shopping for new cosmetics stuff (toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, etc.) and got almost everything I need. I'll head back out in a few minutes to get the remaining items and a bit more money -- I've got about NZ$15, and I need NZ$10 for the shuttle to the airport tomorrow and another NZ$10 for the shuttle ride back in a month and a half.

The nice thing about shopping is that it's ~75 degrees out right now!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

I'm heading back

I've commenced my third trip to the South Pole!

I left Madison on January 1 at 2:20PM CST and four flights (and 31 hours) later I was in my room in New Zealand! That includes a 3 hour layover in LAX and a 10 minute "layover" in Sydney, Australia. Nothing gets your blood pumping after a 14.5 hour flight like having to sprint to the next gate!

This year I tried two different techniques for adjusting to the time change (New Zealand is 19 hours ahead of Madison). I took some melatonin right when I got on the plane at LAX, and I ate supper as soon as I got to LAX and then didn't eat anything for 14 hours after that until they served breakfast on the plane -- the extended fast supposedly resets your internal clock and tells your body that the first meal is "breakfast". Either way, I didn't sleep any more than normal (maybe 6 hours) but felt great all day, got in a 20 minute run, and will easily be awake until 10PM or so!

The long Quantas flight has an in-seat entertainment system (which, by the way, was rebooted a couple of times at the start of the flight, so I know it's a hacked up version of Red Hat Linux running on top of X.) I watched two movies, "The Hurt Locker" set in modern-day Iraq, and "The English Patient" set in pre-WWII Egypt and Arabia. Coincidentally, both movies had a major character who disarmed bombs, and both movies featured an actor from the T.V. show "Lost"!

I forgot my cosmetics bag at home, so tomorrow morning I'll go out and buy shampoo, soap, toothpaste, etc. and then at 1PM I'll go back out to the USAP facility by the airport, get all my gear and find out when the Antarctic flight leaves. If all goes well, I'll arrive in Antarctica in two days and be at the South Pole in three!