Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The journey home

I'm in the Christchurch airport, waiting for my flight to Sydney. I've already hit the first delay of this leg of the trip, but I've got a lot of layover time so it shouldn't be a problem.

In my last blog post I was flying to McMurdo. I obviously made it there

Unlike most people's picture of Antarctica, McMurdo is on the coast and was EXTREMELY warm. The temperature was around 32 degrees when I got there!

I did get to see penguins...

but they were in a display case in Crary, the main science building.

Since we had an entire day in McMurdo, I decided to spend the afternoon on an excursion to Scott Base (the New Zealand base near McMurdo). I told Gonzalo my plans, and Stefan walked up while we were discussing it and said he'd like to go. While I was leaving, one of the South Pole Telescope people started talking to Gonzalo and Stefan. When I showed up at 3PM, half of the people from the Pole flight were waiting to walk to Scott Base!

Scott Base is a decent hike, about 45 minutes over a small mountain. Most of the hike is along a road but the last half mile or so is a trail down a kind of steep slope.

The view is pretty spectacular. The ice from the bay pushing into shore near Scott Base makes for some dramatic scenery.

The day we left McMurdo we were asked to report to the Cargo building at 6:45AM. Of course, any Antarctica flight involves waiting, so we got onto Ivan the TerraBus by around 7:30, trundled out to the airfield and then stood around waiting to see if our flight would take off. Over the bus driver's radio I heard them say the weather in Christchurch was starting to look bad so he should wait with us in case the flight was cancelled.

One pleasant surprise was that we ran into a few IceCube people who were on their way to the Pole (the poor suckers!) They had shown up at Cargo at around 5:30AM and were still waiting for their plane! We chatted a bit and then they were called to grab their stuff and get on a shuttle to their plane. I haven't heard, but I think they made it to Pole on their first try.

We finally were loaded onto our plane, which was packed elbow-to-elbow with passengers. A short 8 hour flight later, we were back in New Zealand. We went through customs, walked back to the CDC to drop off our ECW gar, then ... waited half an hour or so for a shuttle to the hotel.

I was in my hotel room by around 7PM. I grabbed a bite to eat, repacked for the trip home, then took a shower (to cut through the first couple of layers of grime) and then a half hour BATH!!! I got to bed by around 10PM so I could wake up and dash out the door for my 5:15AM shuttle to the airport.

Now just 4 flights stand between me and home!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Coming and going

Yesterday was alternately exciting and boring. I was scheduled to leave Pole so I spent part of the morning packing my remaining belongings and cleaning my room. Part of that task was stripping the linens off my bed and bundling them into a pillowcase. Since the last few flights were cancelled, I waited until the last minute to strip it so I wouldn't have to remake it. I was also a little distracted because...

The British group finally paid us a visit prior to catching their ride home. This group included the Prince and the two celebrities.

They drove from their camp to the station and were treated to a tour which included the science area where I was working. Ralf, a former winter-over and current IT expert, gave a presentation on IceCube and I chimed in with one minor fact. I didn't get to drink with McNulty, but he did give me a smile on the way out.

Our part of the tour ended at around 10:45 and the plane was due at 11:30 so I finished packing and moved my stuff out of my room, then grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading out to wait for the plane. After 20-30 minutes of waiting outside, they waved us onto the plane!

It's about a three hour plane ride from Pole to McMurdo, but there is some great scenery!

After landing, it usually takes around an hour to go from the Pegasus ice runway into the main base. We were dropped off by the main building, and everyone walked to the housing office to get our room assignments. I went to my room and stripped off my winter gear, unneeded because it was a balmy 32 degrees. I walked over to the laundry facility to pick up my linens, carried them back to my room to make my bed, then walked back to the laundry to get a pillow since I hadn't noticed that my bed was missing one.

When my bed was finally made, I figured my bags would be available so I walked up the hill to the cargo area and fetched my luggage and lugged it back down to my room.

By that time, it was suppertime so I grabbed some food in the galley then headed over to the Crary library (where transiting scientists go to use the Wi-Fi) and soaked up some sweet, sweet relatively high-speed Internet!

This morning I got up and took a shower!!!! then checked the McMurdo website to discover that there were no flights or bag drags scheduled for today. I resigned myself to at least a couple of days in McMurdo.

However, I got email a little while ago alerting me that I'd be bag dragging at 8PM for a flight tomorrow! This could mean that I'll be flying home as originally scheduled. Of course, this season has proven that one can never assume things will go as scheduled!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Last Day?

Today might be my last full day at the Pole. Yesterday I left my bags in the cargo area to be added to the ever growing pile of bags destined to be loaded onto the next flight to McMurdo.

Last night was the big South Pole Telescope party, but I spent another Saturday night unconcious. I was asleep by 9PM and woke up (for the final time) at around 7AM! That's the second time this trip I've gotten around 10 hours of sleep, a rare thing at the South Pole.

I did make it out for the start of the South Pole marathon. Over a dozen brave souls started the race.

I didn't stick around to see the finish, Sunday brunch was calling me.

In case you didn't heard, it was a big week for the IceCube project. Physics World magazine named IceCube's observations of neutrinos the Breakthrough of the Year. This is after IceCube made the cover of Science magazine.

It's pretty cool being a tiny part of that work!

Friday, December 13, 2013


The word went out yesterday that Prince Harry's group had set up camp about 10km away from the station. The station managers talked to them and all agreed that they would have a few hours alone at the Pole tonight, then at around 4AM Sunday anyone who wanted could head out to the Pole for a group photo.

Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding somewhere and they Prince's group showed up early this morning, took their hero shots, and went back to their camp. So, no group photo.

They'll be leaving in two groups, one departing on Monday and the other on Wednesday. They'll stay at their camp until then, so the tourist camp remains empty.

The bad luck with flights continued today as yet another flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems. All the people who have been trying to leave for the last 4 days will now be on the Monday flight with me ... assuming that flight makes it here and back to McMurdo with passengers.

And finally the moment you've all been waiting for ... my hero shot for the year!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Happy Antarctica Day!

Welcome, all Antarctica Day celebrants!

Today's big event was a group departure for my project. The four drillers were scheduled to leave two days ago and Gonzalo, one of my co-workers, was supposed to leave yesterday, but the last two flights were cancelled. All of them were ready to leave today!

The plane was due in just after noon, so everyone had a leisurely lunch then got dressed and assembled at DA (Destination Alpha, one of two main exits for the station). After waiting about 15-20 minutes, an announcement on the station PA instructed all passengers to proceed to the departure area.

Ralf gave them a South Pole limo ride from the station to the departure point, then everyone wandered around saying their goodbyes. It seemed to take a LOOONG time before they announced that passengers could board.

The first movement we saw was one of the cargo loaders moving its load back to the cargo shed, followed by another loader taking the baggage off the plane. The plane had trouble with its hydraulic system and the crew were worried about landing in McMurdo with passengers or the extra cargo weight. So everyone is spending an extra night at the Pole!

In other news, we've been told to expect visitors to the tourist camp in about 30 hours or so. This will add to an already busy weekend. The South Pole Telescope is holding their annual open house tomorrow night and the South Pole Marathon will be held on Sunday. After all that frivolity, I'll be ready to leave for McMurdo on Monday so I can get some rest! (Although seeing the current problems with getting planes to Pole and back, I'll consider myself lucky if I make it home by Christmas!)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Travel in Antarctica always has a degree of uncertainty because weather can change in an hour or two and make it difficult to land at the other end. The Wisconsin drillers were scheduled to leave yesterday but that flight was cancelled and today's flight has also been cancelled due to weather.

My flight is already changing even though I'm not leaving for almost a week. My departure date has been bumped up a day, from the 17th to the 16th. I've heard that this is because they're making fewer flights between Pole and McMurdo, and between McMurdo and Christchurch.

Flight in Antarctica always involves a "bag drag". Here at the South Pole, instead of showing up at the airport an hour before the flight and checking in my luggage, I'll need to walk out to the Cargo shed by 3PM the (work) day before my flight with my checked bag. That bag will be weighed and taken away, and I won't see it until several hours after I've landed on the other end.

Since I'm now leaving sometime on Monday and Cargo is closed on Sunday, I'll need to be packed by 2:30PM Saturday. Of course, my flight might get bumped a day or two so I might not really leave until Tuesday or Wednesday. There's also a chance that they'll try to put me on the next flight out of McMurdo, so I might not see my checked bag until Christchurch. This means that I need to plan to be without my checked bag for at least 4 days. I'm already planning on doing laundry tomorrow so it'll be dry on Saturday and making sure I finish up all the work I wanted to get done here at Pole.

There's been no sign of any of the British groups here at Pole, but we did have a minor British Invasion. One of the new arrivals brought in a copy of "Day of the Doctor", the latest Doctor Who episode which aired everywhere else around Thanksgiving. Last night there was a showing in the downstairs lounge. I already feel like I'm back in civilization!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Being green

For you snow-bound people, here's some greenery from the South Pole.

Since there are no flights for at least 8 months, the greenhouse is the only source of fresh fruits and vegetables, referred to as "freshies" here.

The greenhouse area is also delightfully humid so it's not unusual to see someone sitting on the couch inside the greenhouse, soaking up some moisture.

In other news Bill Spindler, who runs pointed me at this article which explains everything you could every want to know about raising and leveling the station. It's a bit technical, but still a fun article if you're interested.

Also, we've cleaned up our area here in the station and Ian is working on a short IceCube presentation because we've been told to expect British media on station in the next couple of days. So maybe I'll get to see McNulty after all!

That last item is particularly important to me because my departure from Pole has been moved from Tuesday to Monday (5 days from now). For some reason I still don't understand, instead of an overnight stay we now need to spend two days in McMurdo on the way out.

So I'm rushing to finish the big task I'd hoped to complete on this visit, but I think that's been true of every visit to the Pole :-)

Monday, December 09, 2013

Snow removal

I've been hearing about the snow in the Midwest so I thought I'd make you all feel better about the amount you have to shovel.

All winter long, snow blows across the Antarctic continent, stopping only when it drifts against some obstacle. Unfortunately, the buildings at the Pole are major obstacles, so we end up having large drifts. One of the jobs here at the start of the summer season is moving all that snow.

Before any planes arrive, the winter-overs have to get the heavy machinery warmed up and then they need to clear off the runway so the first planes can land. They also clear away the drifts which have blown up against all the buildings.

One of the last buildings to be cleared is the main station, officially known as the Elevated Station. As you can see, the entire station is built on pillars so tractors can drive underneath and clear out the drifted snow. This will hold off the snow for a couple of decades but eventually the snow behind the station will be too high. When that happens, The station is designed so that the entire thing can be raised. I'm not sure if they'll add more segments to the pillars or if they'll just jack up the station, haul in and pack down a bunch of snow and then place the pillars on the newly packed snow.

Hopefully, this station can avoid the fate of the old station which, as I wrote earlier, is now buried under 20-30 feet on snow. Ian, one of the IceCube winterovers succeeded in getting a picture of the explosion which further buried the old station

If you'd like to learn more about Old Pole or other Antarctic details, the website has more details about the Old Pole station and details of both Antarctic history and current goings-on!

Sunday, December 08, 2013


On Friday night Kyle Hoppe, the ASC energy engineer gave a talk about the past, present, and future of energy use on Antarctica. They've done much to reduce energy use everywhere (no-flush urinals, high efficiency lights, etc.) and are working on new ways to save and create energy.

They're examining the environmental impact of an incinerator for McMurdo. It would burn cardboard and wood products which would otherwise need to be shipped back North for recycling.

McMurdo and neighboring Scott Base (run by New Zealand) already have a common power grid. Antarctica New Zealand is eager to add 5 windmills in addition to the 3 which are already running and supplying most of Scott Base's energy needs.

Windmills are apparently major sources of EMI (electro-magnetic interference), which has kept them from being used at Pole due to all the sensitive scientific instruments. Companies are starting to market products to filter the EMI produced so we might see large windmills at the Pole in the next decade.

WIPAC (the new UW supergroup which includes IceCube) are doing their part. Part of my job this season is helping to install new servers which are more powerful but also more energy efficient.

The Askaryen Radio Array is a 5 kilometer neutrino detector located above and beyond IceCube. They're still in the experimental phase, but because their instruments are located so far from the station they're looking at using a combination of windmills and batteries to power these distant stations.

My colleague Matt Newcomb is looking at adding solar panels to the two ICL towers. These would wrap completely around the towers and provide power all summer long

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Swedish camera

The cables for the IceCube strings are over a mile and a half long. The 60 sensors (digital optical modules, or DOMs) on each string are spread across a kilometer of cable. The detector has to be spread out because we want to capture as much information about as many neutrinos as we possibly can.

While IceCube was putting strings in the ice, there was a unique opportunity for people to install additional things in the spaces between DOMs. I don't know exact numbers, but it seems like almost a third of the strings had some sort of special device installed, some more successful than others.

One that's still in use is the Swedish camera. This is actually a pair of cameras on the same section of cable between two DOMs, the lower one pointing up and the other pointing down. These cameras were used to visually inspect the freeze-in process and are still turned on every year or so to chart how the ice changes as it solidifies.

The process to use these cameras is somewhat involved. Because it's a visual inspection, we need to turn on the cameras' lights. However, the DOMs are very sensitive so we turn off all but the most remote DOMs or they might be overloaded and stop working!

Because there is light in the detector, the data taken while the Swedish camera is running isn't useful for most normal science, but we keep that outer ring of DOMs going just in case there's a supernova somewhere "near by". The last close supernova happened in 1987. Twenty four neutrinos emitted by that event were recorded and physicists were able to massively increase their knowledge of neutrinos and the universe from those few particles. We're overdue for a supernova in our galaxy, so we need to keep the detector taking data as continuously as possible in order to catch that supernova's particles when they hit earth.

If you're interested, you can read the weekly report from three years ago when the Swedish camera was deployed, and see a better image from the Swedish camera.

Friday, December 06, 2013


Pretty boring day today. I got up and discovered the GOES satellite link was GONE again. I got dressed and performed my morning ablutions then gobbled a double chocolate muffin before working out. Since I had a shower a couple of days ago I got dressed right after I worked out and headed into B2, where I've been planted ever since.

Fortunately I've got a few pics squirreled away. Here are a couple of pictures of summer camp. These are insulated plywood and canvas buildings used when there are a lot of people here. The station population is low enough that everyone gets a room on station, but back in IceCube drilling days I stayed out here a couple of times.

Here's the back side of one of the summer camp buildings. Snow blows in all winter and unless it's cleared away it will eventually bury anything that sticks above ground.

The traverse guys mark their trail with flags like those around this building and some those were barely visible when they made the first trip this year!

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Satellite woes

This morning I'd planned to moderate the weekly DAQ call and then join Ralf in B2 to help switch the DAQ control server to a new machine. Unfortunately, the satellite didn't cooperate with the former and almost sabotaged the latter.

When I woke before 7AM, the GOES satellite connection was out so we had no connection to the Internet or the phone network. There are a few satellites which cover the South Pole, but it's rare that they overlap so we have backup when one connection fails:

My call was scheduled for 8:30AM this morning (1:30PM CDT) but GOES wasn't up so I had to cancel the call. Fortunately, there is a way for email to leak out. There is an extremely slow link to the rest of the work via the Iridium satellite networkover which e-mail messages below a certain size can be sent almost immediately.

At 8:45AM the GOES link was fixed, so we moved on to the server work and after some preparation we finished very quickly, missing only three and a half minutes of IceCube detector data!

I'll be busy the rest of the day preparing for the next few server switches. One is happening this afternoon but it's pretty simple and I'm estimating that we'll have less than a minute of downtime.

For today's fun South Pole shots, here are a couple of shots taken while I walked to the IceCube Lab. First, a view of the ICL. This building was actually one of a set of dorms back before the current station was built. Once the station became habitable, they parceled the buildings out to several different experiments.

Here's a view, taken from the same spot, looking back at the station. The station is on the left, assorted buildings are visible in the middle, and the berms (the warehouse district of the Pole where things are stashed for long-term storage) are on the far right. You might be able to see several sets of flags scattered around the snowscape. Those are markers for the IceCube strings and icetop stations!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Big boom!

Yesterday some experts detonated some explosives planted around the old station (the original station built in the 50s) in an attempt to further collapse the snow in that area. Parts of the old station are still there under loads of snow which leads to a treacherous situation. A year or two ago, a bulldozer was grooming the old station area when a section collapsed and it took a great deal of effort to pull out that bulldozer. Thus the decision to try to fully collapse the snow over the old station.

For me, this is not just a safety measure, it's an opportunity for a cool show!

We left the IceCube Lab 15 minutes before the scheduled time and walked 100 yards or so to the South Pole Telescope building, which is the closest building to the explosions.

At SPT, we went inside to warm up a bit, then climbed the outside stairs to the roof.

A decent crowd of spectators assembled there, including several of the Traverse guys, all with cameras ready to capture the action.

The team of experts took a while to get everything ready but after about 10 minutes the station announced that blasting would begin in 1 minute. I got my camera out of my warm jacket and started taking video 30 seconds before "explosion time".

About 20 seconds after the scheduled time, one of the experts started walking back toward the point where all the wires were connected, so there was obviously a technical problem. I stopped recording and put my camera back in my jacket. The extreme cold drains batteries quickly and 50 seconds or so of video had depleted about two-thirds of my camera's battery !

After some work, the expert walked back to the group and soon one of them shouted out "Fire in the hole. In ten ... nine ...", so I got my camera back out and started filming again. The countdown reached zero and ... nothing again. By this point my camera's battery indicator was flashing red!

After another trip out to work on the connections, without any other warning someone just shouted "Fire in the hole!" and the explosion went off!

There was a satisfying spray of snow and a definite BOOM, accompanied by a groan from the crowd that we weren't able to get any pictures!

I know they weren't there to entertain us but still....

After the explosion, people milled around a bit but we had been standing on top of the building in the wind for about half an hour so everyone left pretty quickly. Ralf offered my a ride back to the station on the sled attached to his snow machine, but I hadn't brought a helmet. One of the traverse guys overhead that conversation and said he was driving past the station if I'd like a ride, so I got to ride back in one of the traverse vehicles!!!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

We are not alone

We have visitors today! There is a "tourist camp" for the small stream of visitors to the Pole. It normally looks like this:

There's a solar toilet and a small building which acts as the visitors' center. Visitors can request a station tour (which I believe includes a free South Pole cookie) and stop by the station store to purchase souvenirs, but they're not allowed to sleep on station (unless it's a life threatening emergency).

These visitors (the first this season?) are the support crew for the Willis Resilience Expedition. A 19 year old is attempting to set a speed record for skiing from the coast to the Pole.

The current visitors are just taking a quick 8 hour nap before heading out on the next leg of their trip, so this may just be the crew scouting the route before the actual attempt. They'll apparently be back in 3-4 weeks so I'll miss the final visit.

I'll also likely miss Prince Harry's arrival though I'm more upset about not seeing Dominic West who is on the same trip. A co-worker noted that it'd have been even more fun if West's fellow The Wire actor Michael K. Williams were coming, then we could wander around the station saying "Omar coming"

Monday, December 02, 2013

Late night

I've had a short day today and the last satellite pass is coming to an end, so this will be a quick post.

The phone in my room rang at 1AM this morning. The detector was having problems. I stumbled from my room to B2 and Ralf (a former IceCube winter-over and current IT expert), Ian (current IceCube winter-over), and I tried to puzzle out what was wrong.

We eventually involved John, an expert in the North (well, the Northern Hemisphere ... everywhere is north from here) and have a rough idea of the problem, though we don't have a fix yet.

I got back to sleep by 5AM, woke up again at 9:30AM and managed to get in a 35 minute session on the elliptical machine before lunch!

The station had plans to do some blasting at the Old Station today but those were postponed until tomorrow.

Here's a quick pic of the view out my room window. If you go back and look at the picture I posted of my room, it may not be obvious that I have a window. That's because the dorm room windows are usually covered up with cardboard to block out the 24 hour sun.