Still the best way to stay in touch with all you folks . . .

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Out in the wild, wild WAIS

     WAIS'd days and WAIS'd nights . . . WAIS'd away . . . and many, many more word-plays.      
     This field camp supports a project coring ice of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).   January 2012, they completed the project, going over 3,400 meters deep.  Over two miles.  It's estimated that the cores reach back 68,000 years, giving researchers a record of weather and climate.  That's the principle goal of the project.  This year they went back and replicated some cores that were of special interest.

     The camp started the summer season of 2005-06.  Since then, it's been staffed and operating from whenever they can put in, usually sometime in November, until late January or early February.  The camp population was in the 40's and 50's but occasionally swelled even more.  Many people came through on other science projects or on their way to somewhere else.  I passed through on my way to and from PIG.  Lots folks have been WAIS'd.
This is just the cargo lines and main portion of camp.  The tent camp is back behind the farthest structure to the left and the drilling arch, generators and associated buildings are several hundred yards directly off  to the left.

This might be called the work side of town.  The first tent on the far left is for the core drilling researchers.  The next is for the various other projects such as the weather and seismic crews that put out stations around the continent.   Beyond that is a hard-sided module, the mechanics' shop.  It and all other mods are mounted on skis.  They are towed to a mound of snow, a berm, for storage over the winter.  After that there are a couple of wooden storage sheds. 
You can see a Twin Otter parked beyond.  There were two based at WAIS when I was there.  As I said, WAIS is a very busy place.

The other side of town starts at the long recreation tent with a wash mod on back.    Inside the tent was an exercise bike, couches, computer stations and a large scale flat screen for movies.  The wash mod had a snow melter, water heater, washer, dryer, three sinks and two showers.  Hot and cold running water!
Beyond that is the medical tent, staffed by a physician's assistant.  The next two tents were berthing for the flight crews.  At the end is a Jamesway for transient berthing.

And in the center of town, the center of many activities, the Galley.  Who knows how the flamingos got there or when.

There was a staff of three cooks and a helper.  I always say, the farther you are from McMurdo, the better the food is.  We were VERY far away.   There was always something out, cookies, cake, pie, for those coffee breaks or late night snacks.

Besides meals, meetings and many games of cribbage and Scrabble, the galley was also used for social and educational functions.  For instance, take the second night I was in town.  The fellow on the left, Patrick Cassidy, a professor of something I can't remember, gave a lecture on the history and the making of scotch, complete with video.  After about the first 45 minutes or so the lecture ended and bottles of scotch went around for tasting.  Don't think was just an excuse for drinking.  All the scotch was donated but all participants tossed in $10 each.  Over $300 was raised for a charity in Nepal.  I don't remember what for, but a charity.  I don't remember how long this educational function went on, I don't remember if I was there at the end.  I'm just glad it was a Saturday night.
         There really were several educational lectures.  One of the weather researchers gave a lecture on  cloud formations.  The people going out in the Twin Otters to put weather and seismic stations in remote areas had a full time, professional mountain climber to assist them.  That fellow, Mike Roberts, gave a two-night presentation  with slides and maps of 'The Seven Summits'.  Mike has climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents including Everest in Asia, Denali in North America and Kilimanjaro in Africa.  You meet all kinds of interesting and talented people down here. 
Speaking of talented people, the second Saturday I was in town, there was an open-mike, coffee house in the rec tent.  There were several very good readings of original work, some live music and even a couple limericks that I won't repeat here.  The pilot that recited them swore her old Irish grandmother taught them to her.

It wasn't all fun and games.  This is one of the crews headed out for a shift in the arch.  I believe they worked two shifts a day, six days a week. 

With all that hard work, the crews finished their work ahead of schedule.  The final Saturday most of us were in town, we had a party to celebrate.   One of the researchers brought a pinata along for just such an occasion.  It was full of liquor miniatures.  Seems to be a trend here. 

     While the folks were out at the arch working and other researchers were out  putting in weather and seismic stations and whatever, there was a camp staff keeping things going.  Besides the cooks, there were two mechanics, two equipment operators, two weather observers, a fuels person, a person responsible for communications and IT, one camp coordinator, one camp manager and an electrician. 
     When this project was funded, it was decided that there would be an electrician at camp at all times.  I'm not sure why.  There is a lot of equipment in the arch, but those folks pretty much took care of things.  Most of my time was spent helping the other people in camp, shoveling snow, loading cargo, shoveling snow, loading the snow melters, shoveling snow.  I looked for electrical work to do.

Sometimes I looked for work.  Sometimes I didn't.

     At the end of my three weeks, it was time for the camp to close.  I started the process and the same electrician that put up camp came out to finish the take-out, as they call it.
     Once again, I had a ball.  I've even asked to go out next year for another three week shift.  Yeah, that's right, I'll be back here again next year.
     But right now it's time to go.  The winter crew has been showing up for a few weeks.  The fuel ship has been here and gone, the cargo ship has been unloaded and is being reloaded with waste.  Most of the scientists and researchers are gone.  The ski-equipped C-130 planes are all back in New Zealand, getting ready to head north. 
     I'm scheduled to fly out Feb. 24 weather permitting.  I'm going to spend a few days in Christchurch getting my physical completed as much as possible for next season.  The company arranges it so I won't have to pay anything.  After that I'm headed back to Bali for a few days of diving on Nusa Lembongan.  Then it's over to another Indonesian island called Lombok.  I'm told it's one of the most relaxing places in the world.  I intend to find out.
     In mid-March I'll be back in Pennsylvania.
     See you whenever.      

Friday, January 11, 2013


     So the email said,
     This message is to confirm that you have been selected to participate in a morale trip to assist with
   looking for whales to tag via helicopter!

     Morale trips, sometimes referred to as boondoggles or, in the case of the South Pole, sleigh rides, are randomly awarded.  The amount of time someone has spent on the Ice may have something to do with it.  Earlier this year I filled out my wish list with a sleigh ride as my one and only choice.  I didn't know about whaling.
     Tuesday evening I showed up at the helicopter terminal.  Another fellow and I were going out with the three-man whale tagging crew.  It was about a ten minute ride out to the sea ice edge.  That's not very far, even for this time of year.  I had envisioned open water beyond the edge.  Actually, it's a jumble of ice, in every shape and form.
     We cruised west along the ice edge for a while, spotting whales, seals and penguins.  Eventually, Bob, the lead researcher picked the area he wanted and we landed.

Several flocks of the locals showed up to welcome us.

Orca, the killer whale.  Or Shamu.

This is a minke whale.  It's actually larger than the orca, a lot longer especially.  As you can see, the dorsal fin is a lot smaller and a lot farther back on the body.
The pool is barely bigger than a backyard, not even a good size fishing hole.  Obviously big enough for a killer whale to bob around in, catching it's breath.
This one was spy hopping, checking us out.  They bob out of the water to get a look at what's going on.  Minke's will do it as well, but only the killers, the orcas, were doing it while we were there.

These are both females.  The males have much larger, taller dorsal fins.
The fin to the reat belongs to a male.  I don't know how many whales we saw.  I can't identify them by their fins and markings and such, although, Bob could.  He should; that's his business.  Not counting the ones we saw passing through the ice chucks way off, we still saw at least 15 to 20, killer and minke whales combined

How close were the whales?  Dan was standing maybe 4 or 5 feet from the ice edge when this minke surfaced.  Once, an orca came right along parallel to the edge.  I'd say we were within 10 or 12 feet at times.

This male killer whale is not far off the edge.  You can see how it compares to a man.  As Mark said, "They may be small as whales go, but they are still really big animals." 

This trip made the whole season worthwhile - not to mention the other trips I've taken.
      This is a rush job.  I took these photos two nights ago.  I was scheduled to leave day after tomorrow for WAIS Divide field camp, but yesterday they changed it to tomorrow.  We are already rushed, getting  paperwork done for the end of the season, about 7 weeks from now. 
     I'm going to be gone for the next 3 weeks.  If you have any comments on this, please hold off until, oh, say Groundhog's Day, the Super Bowl, whatever.  Until then, my Internet connection is going to be incredibly slow.  Somewhere I read that the whole camp only has the capacity of about 1/100th of a household connection.  I don't expect to be able to connect often or to be able to download much.  

     It's been a busy day, it's about midnight, but I wanted to get these out.  By the time I get back from WAIS I should have enough for a blog about that place.  But no wildlife. 
See ya next time . . .

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I was a co-pilot for the British Antarctic Survey

     And you didn't even know I could fly . . . neither did I . . . 

It's the smallest plane I've ever been in.
        BAS, British Antarctic Survey, is the United Kingdom's national Antarctic operation.  Somewhere I'm logged in as co-pilot on a couple Twin Otter flights.
     Maybe you remember PIG.  Pine Island Glacier field camp, located about 12,000 miles up the coast from McTown.  Last year it was delayed over a month in part because the Air Guard's C-130 Hercules had difficulties flying and/or landing.  As a result, there was very, very little research accomplished. 
     This year the plan changed.  Instead of flying all the way there on the C-130's, we just flew to WAIS Divide, about 900 miles away.  WAIS is so big, it's almost a station.  30 or more people full time, showers, a washer and dryer.  They still sleep in backpacking tents, but there is a Jamesway set up with cots for transient, migrant workers (that's me) and others that aren't  there long enough to make it worthwhile setting up a tent. 

Hotel d' WAIS
           But enough about WAIS.  I got in one evening about 7 PM.  In the galley, the BAS pilot and mechanic were quizzing me about how much I weighed, how much my gear, tools, etc. weighed.  Seems they were going to be based at PIG.  They already had cargo and were trying to decide if they could squeeze in another passenger besides me.  Guess not - the next morning it was just the three of us loading up.  While we were getting my stuff and some fresh fruits and vegetables loaded, Ewan, the mechanic was telling me I would be co-pilot.   I should watch because Steve, the pilot, sometimes dozed off . . . I could tell from his attitude Ewan liked to joke around.  Then they told me to get into the shotgun seat.  Ewan would ride in the rear with the gear.
     From WAIS to PIG is around 250-300 miles.  A couple hours in a Twin Otter.  Steve said with no head or tail wind we would cruise at a ground speed of about 135 mph.  As luck would have it, we had a 50 mph tail wind so we were doing about 180.  In between filling out paperwork including the log -"What's your last name? . . . Is that Russian? . . . Spell it . . ." and talking to whoever does air control around the continent, Steve told me about all the instruments, altimeters, gps, gyros, true compasses, magnetic compasses, grid compasses and several other hootenflickers and thingamajigs.   One was a little plane with a line going out to a spot labelled PIG.   All  of this at about 180 mph with his boots off and barely a hand on the wheel, I mean, yoke.  Steve also showed me the emergency fuel shutoffs in case of a crash landing.  Thanks . . . 

That's Ewan exploring his sinuses and Steve on the right.  These two are a couple of real characters. Ewan is an antelope rancher in the Kalahari desert of South Africa.  Steve is Canadian.  Both tell wild stories of adventures on - and off - the ice.
 Anyway, back to my flight . . .
     One of the little gizmos on the dash looked like a tiny cartoon plane.  Steve said that was the important one.  The little wings had to stay level.  He turned the yoke to the right, the cartoon plane drifted right and we did too.  He pulled the yoke back and we went up.  Down, and we went down, although he pulled that back up fairly quick.  I think we were flying a couple thousand feet above the ground, snow, ice, whatever while the altitude showed about 7,000 ft.  By the time we neared PIG we were still a couple thousand feet up, but the elevation was down to about 4,000 ft.
     After Steve went through that stuff, he said, give it a try - so I did. I didn't (intentionally) mess with the up and down.  Must have been a cross wind or maybe the wings were out of alignment, something, but we seemed to drift to the right.   I was holding it straight, with the little plane headed straight at PIG.  About the third Steve looked up from his paperwork and told me to bring it back to the left, he said ignore the little plane going to PIG, just keep the wings level.  After that I did okay.  When Steve finished taking a break with his paperwork and such, he took back control. 
     So maybe I wasn't exactly flying the plane, but for a while, I was steering the plane.  Ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, I don't know how long, I just know it was fun.  
     Before long, Steve pointed out a little spot w - a - y out ahead.  Took me a while to see it.  Then, there it was and we were heading in to land.

PIG, a little piece of home in a big, flat, white place.
      It had been tough for the PIG 'put-in' crew, the carps and the camp staff.  All the gear and even some of the provisions had been stored over the winter.  Covered in snow and frozen in.   There were a few pieces of mechanical equipment there, a groomer, a small fork lift, but they had to be dug-out by hand and then warmed up with a heater - which had to be dug out by hand as well.
     The last two large tents were going up the day I arrived.  Only a few of the PIG science folks were there yet. 
     I put up my personal tent, stowed my gear and got to work.  My job was about the same as last year, with a few tweaks to take care of some issues, both from last year and things that came up.  It was Thursday afternoon when I started.  By Saturday afternoon, we had the kitchen prep area complete and the water system melting snow, storing and heating water.  The cook was happy to have real ovens, ranges and especially because he had electricity to run his ipod instead of recharging it all the time.  A few small generators provided power before I got the place wired up and they fired up the big generator.  50 kw, if you wondered, way more than necessary for PIG.

A happy cook makes a crew happy.
      While we were setting the camp up, electrifying it, getting a shower set up (!?!), Steve was hauling cargo and the scientists out to set up the drill camp out on the glacier, about a twenty minute flight, one way.  He also flew back to WAIS a couple times.  Most of the scientists went directly from WAIS to the drill camp.  They were finally up and starting operations after about 5 years of planning, preparing, practicing and last season's dismal season.  They were very happy campers.
     More people got to be co-pilots because Ewan stayed in camp most of the time.  As Steve explained it, both he and Ewan were restricted as to how many hours they could work.  If Ewan went out as co-pilot and something went wrong with the plane, he might not have enough hours to be able to work on the plane right away.  So, - it worked out for Ewan and Steve and all the happy co-pilots.  Most of us in camp got to fly out to the drill site and see the glacier.  A few even got to see the coast, about 6 miles from the camp. 
     By Monday, I was tying up loose ends - sometimes literally, getting dangling cords secured - and making notes for my report, writing out some directions for the camp staff. Sunday three of the put-in carpenters were relieved by other in-coming carps.  Two others and myself were scheduled to leave Tues. morning after I co-piloted a flight to the drill camp and back.
     Fog at the drill camp delayed that flight.   Eventually we flew over and then Steve had to make a second trip.  By then the trip to WAIS to get the three of us headed on to McTown had been cancelled.  The real reason for the trip to WAIS wasn't for our return; it was to pick up a hydraulic hose for the forklift.  Getting the hose was important; getting us out wasn't; the hose hadn't arrived, there was no need for the trip.
     Before we flew to the drill camp, I took my backpacking tent down.  I was told there wouldn't be enough time between when I returned and we left for WAIS.  The other two had their tents down by the time I got back from the drill camp.  Rather than putting them up, it was decided the three of us would sleep in one of the big tents that hadn't been put to use yet.  As it turned out, that was a good thing.   


     Sometime during the night, a storm blew in and kept on blowing.  Winds were about 22 mph with gusts in the high 20's.  I'll bet they were higher than that.
     Nothing was happening on Wednesday.  Actually there was a little action.  All the tents have flys, basically a fitted second covering.  Snow blew in under one, accumulated and collapsed the tent.  A fly on a second tent was shreaded by the wind.  So more folks slept in big tents that night.  We left behind two of our tents as replacements and spare parts.

Thursday morning, sunny, clear and relatively calm.
     As happened last season, once the storm blew through, it was a beautiful day around camp - once we shoveled the snow out of the doorways and the groomer plowed the drifts out.  We left that morning.  Steve dropped us off at WAIS and picked up three more folks to replace us.  There was still work to be done, some helicopter pads to be set up, a gantry to erect and always, snow to shovel.
     The three of us hung around WAIS until Friday evening.  About 9:30 a C-130 touched down.  After an hour of unloading, loading and fueling, we took off for the flight to McTown.  I don't recall what time we landed, I slept part of the way, but it was about 2 AM when we got off the shuttle in town.
     Tomorrow morning, Dec. 26, I'm scheduled for a helicopter trip to Black Island.  It's just a short 10 minute flight out to the satellite receiver site.  It's manned and we'll spend the night while a plumber and I work on replacing part of the heating system.  After that, who knows.  There has to be an electrician at WAIS full time.  So far, three have rotated through.  Maybe I'll go out there for a couple weeks.
     I may get another blog or two in before this trip is over, but like all plans around here, that's susceptible to change.
     See ya next time.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Spring time in Antarctica

     The other day the temperature was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  I'm not sure what the wind speed was, but the wind chill was -40. 
     Ahhhhh - spring time in Antarctica, when the beakers, scientists that is, migrate to the harshest continent.

Highest, driest, coldest, windiest, harshest continent.

And in preparation for all those inquisitive beakers, a whole bunch of us also migrate south for another season of big red parkas, field camps, flights lines and . . . . fun? Or at least funds.

This was one of the last sunsets for months to come. Now it's daylight 24 hours a day, even though the sun is behind the mountains for a few hours each night.

     I arrived down here at Mctown, aka McMurdo Station, on Oct. 2.  It was the second flight of 'main body', those of us coming for the summer.  That's not to be confused with the smaller bunch, a couple hundred, that came in late August for win-fly.  That's some sort of abbreviation for winter-fly-in or something.  This is my sixth trip, eighth season, over 40 months total and I still haven't learned the language and acronyms.

     A couple hundred may not sound like a 'smaller bunch', but McTown's population went from about 150 over the winter, before winfly, to a few more than 1,000 about a week ago.  That's more than is usually here until around late January when the ship is in port to be off-loaded (not unloaded, more McTown-talk). A whole bunch of off-loader-type people are brought in for a week or two for that chore.

These the C-130 Hercules with skis do the heavy lifting to South Pole and the field camps.  The New York Air National Guard operates four of them for the U.S. Antarctic Program. 
McTown is the largest station and gateway for much of the continent.  The C-130 on the right belongs to the New Zealand military.                          

     People were coming from Cheech (Christchurch, New Zealand) but with few exceptions, no one was leaving McTown.  Some were folks headed to South Pole for the season.  Some were Australians transitting through on the way to Casey station somewhere out on the coast. Many here in town were waiting to head out to set up field camps in preparation for the beakers.  Beakers that were that were already arriving. 

     Weather was definitely a problem, but not the only one.  For a while, there were only two C-130's on station.  There has to be one C-130 available at all times in case of an emergency, so two flights were the most that generally could be achieved per day, one in the morning and one later in the afternoon or evening.  In addition, some mechanical failures have caused delays. 

This is a Basler, operated by Kenn Borek Air, a Canadian contractor. It's the second largest plane supporting the field camps. Rumor has it that I'll get to ride one to PIG field camp. 

     The Baslers got some groups out and back in the last couple weeks, but not a lot.  Weather was the issue in most cases for those delays.

This is also Kenn Borek Air, a Twin Otter.  I think these can operate down to -100F. As far as I know, they are the smallest airplanes operating down here.  After that, it's helicopters.

     That's about it for right now.  A lot of us are waiting to go.  Not that we're sitting around, waiting.  There are always pumps breaking or heat trace to work on, vehicle heater lines that need repair, new and improved ideas and always, always, stuff for the beakers.

     After all, if it weren't for science, we wouldn't be here.

     See ya next time.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Marble Point and the Dry Valleys

In January, I spent almost as much time away from McMurdo Station as I did in town. I spent a week at PIG. The week after I returned, I went to Marble Point for four days on a project. Marble Point is a helicopter refueling site fifty-some miles north up the McMurdo Sound. It's also used as a staging point for material going to the science field camps in the Dry Valleys. More about those later. As you can see, it's not a big place. There is a generator shack and work shop to the right, a white bunkhouse, another red one to the left and a main building between the two. There are also about six 25,000 gallon fuel tanks and a small pump house. The whole place is operated by a staff of three. The manager is responsible for doing just about everything and anything and goes by the name, "Crunch". I haven't determined why. A lot of people go by names other than the ones on their passports. The carp shop has Woody, Shaggy, Pull Start, Corndog, Sticky, Dog, Sparky, G, Mombok, Captain Ed and Mandy who isn't named Mandy. Anyway, Marble also has an excellent cook named Karen who doesn't cook leftovers, but redesigns food to create great meals. The main part of fueling is done by members of the fuel shop who rotate in and out of the station on a two week basis. It's a privilege to get out there. I now understand why. I was on a three-man crew sent to renovate the station water system. The plumber had the majority of the work. I just had to rewire a couple pumps, the water heater and a few other things. I was usually done by dinner and would take a walk afterwards. This is a shot I took on the way in on the helicopter. It's the face of Wilson Piedmont Glacier behind the station, maybe a mile from the shore of McMurdo Sound. Marble Point station is about half way between the shore and the glacier. And yes, those are lakes formed from snow melt and water from the glacier. They are open only a short period each year. Miro is standing some distance from the glacier. I would estimate the height at about 60-70 feet at this point. The face stretches several miles. Another evening I walked toward shore. This was just one of numerous icebergs frozen in the sea ice. What was more surprising to me was the moss in the foreground. There was algae that looked like leafy mud in the lakes, but this is something actually green. This place never ceases to amaze me. This big squared-off berg is in Bay of Sails just a mile or so up the coast from Marble Point. There's a photo of it that I was able to use to measure to scale. That's about one half mile on the shadowed side. Karen was the cook at Marble last year. She said this particular berg floated in and got stuck - on the bottom? - when the sea ice melted out. It's been a couple weeks since I took this photo and there's a lot more open water everywhere so this berg may be floating again. About a week after my Marble Point trip, I was part of a crew sent to the Lake Fryxell camp in the Dry Valleys.

This is near the end of Taylor Valley going toward McMurdo Sound which would be to the left. It's the east end of Lake Fryxell. The katabatic winds that come roaring down off the Polar Plateau at speeds of up to 140 mph sweep virtually all the snow out of Taylor and other Dry Valleys. The use of 'Dry' refers to the lack of snow, since there are a series of these lakes down through the 'Dry' Valleys. Lake Fryxell is about 3 miles long. This is the research camp at the western end. At the far left is the generator shack. The other four are labs, chemical, electronic, etc. The Jamesway on the right is the galley. The place is somewhat spartan, with an outhouse and designated tent sites out back but then again, we were in contact both by radio and satellite phone. Not bad, especially when the weather was sunny and the winds calm.

This time, our job was to build a foundation for a new generator shack up the hill behind the current camp. Eventually the whole camp will be up there.

The lakes in the valleys are rising. At another camp, the foundation of a lab that was taken down earlier this season is already under water. They - 'they' being scientists - think the snow and ice on the surface of the lakes and glaciers is melting because of sand being blown onto them. The sand causes the surface to warm up more and sooner each year. As far as I know, the terms global warming and climate change haven't been mentioned. The only sure thing is, the water levels in the lakes are coming up noticeably.

This is the other end of Lake Fryxell, just out in front of the camp. Pretty nice scenery. On the right is the end of the Canadian Glacier. Just like at Marble, once our work was done, we were free to take a hike. At this point, the Canadian Glacier is at least 100 feet high.

It extends far into the mountains. We were careful getting close. Rocks and boulders are stuck in the sides, just waiting to fall. Another evening I hiked a couple miles to the east to the Commonwealth Glacier near the east end of Lake Fryxell. On the left side toward the front you can see a little hill jutting into the side of the glacier. It took me an hour to walk to that point. This is looking toward the front of the Commonwealth and down into the valley. I'd estimate the height at about 100 feet again. The sides of Commonwealth were much more vertical. It looks evident that a lot of ice is shearing off and piling up along the bottom. I kept my distance from this one. When we arrived on Friday morning, quite a bit of the lake was thawed, creating what's referred to as 'the moat'. A boat is kept on the land side, with a cable running to a bracket on the ice, to enable people to cross to the ice for research.

By the time we left on Tuesday evening, there was less than a foot of open water. The rough ice is caused by wind-driven water washed up on existing ice which then freezes as ripples. I would guess the lake is frozen over for another year. No matter, after we completed the new generator shack floor, we closed the camp, covering the doors and windows, emptying and shutting things off and lashing everything down. None will spend time there until next year.

This season is fast coming to a close. I'm scheduled to fly out on Feb. 13, a week from tomorrow as I write this. In other words, this will probably be the last blog, at least for this trip. I hope you enjoyed them.

For those of you in and around Johnstown, I'll see you in a few weeks. And for the rest of you, as always, I'll see ya whenever.