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January 19, 2009

Scott Base

Scott Base is New Zealand’s research station here on Ross Island. It’s just a couple of miles down the road from McMurdo. Once a week, the base hosts “American Night,” inviting McMurdo residents for a visit and a beer. I hopped a shuttle van and checked it out.

Scott is compact, quiet, tidy, and very green in color. The buildings are green, the pipes are green, the fuel tanks, storage huts and bins are green. Even the milvans are green. Some find it pleasant; others don’t. An American visitor commented that the Kiwis had been played a cruel joke upon, a joke they didn’t get.

I disagreed, but it got me wondering about the reason for the color. My first guess was that it was inspired by New Zealand’s iconic parrots seen on the sign in the top photo.

My second guess was that it represents greenness in the environmental sense. This occurred to me on seeing several recycling bins indoors.

I was wrong on both counts. A quick search led to an interesting Scott Base FAQ where the answer — or at least the mythology — behind the color is revealed.

As well as its name. You gotta love a hue called ‘Chelsea cucumber.’


Filed under: Antarctic Research Facilities,Antarctica — mbartalos @ 11:33 pm

January 18, 2009

Treasure Hunting in Antarctica

Here are a few of the many items I’ve acquired for my project so far. Most were generously donated by people who took an interest in my work. The weathered pieces came from Crunch, the Marble Point camp manager. He found them strewn about his Dry Valleys camp, remnants of the pre-Code of Conduct era.

The photo of a boy and two owls is a magazine clipping found in the Crary building by IT Science Support Manager Karen Joyce. It was tacked to the wall of an empty workspace. The who, when, and why of the photo remains a mystery.

More stuff from Marble Point, and a flag tattered by Antarctic winds. (Thanks Sharona!)

Studies in patina and rust, retrieved from the Dry Valleys. Conservation policy allows removal of garbage from the general landscape, but not from historic sites.


Filed under: Items Reclaimed from the Ice,McMurdo,Process — mbartalos @ 11:40 pm

January 17, 2009

The South Pole, Part 3

Out towards the summer housing barracks, a profusion of tri-walls and stacked stuff dot the landscape. The South Pole Waste Department lies in that direction, and Paul and I set out for it.

I met Waste Management Specialist Clair Von Handorf who kindly showed me around the area and explained her department’s operations. Her team’s chief task is to process the station’s trash and ship it out as soon as possible. To facilitate this, she and her two techs (Wasties, as they’re affectionately called) have a number of jobs. One is briefing the station’s residents on how to correctly sort trash. Another is setting up, maintaining, and emptying various departments’ trash lines and recycling boxes. They also clean up hazardous waste spills, rearrange and consolidate berms (storage in snow banks), and coordinate with the Cargo Department to ship off both solid and haz waste.

They even set up solar toilets. And of course, regularly empty the toilets’ 55-gallon drums.

The many demands on the 3-person team are slightly eased by a community clean-up system unique to the Pole: each one of approximately 250 summer residents (and about 60 in winter) takes turns as a ‘House Mouse,’ performing routine duties for set periods. These include cleaning both work and living facilities, taking trash out from buildings to the tri-walls, and doing any additional sorting.

Tri-walls get banded up in the Waste Yard and put on palettes in the Cargo waste area. An important concern of Clair’s is compliance with the Antarctic Conservation Act, an international agreement requiring removal of all hazardous waste from the station within 15 months of being generated.

At the airstrip, waste is in Cargo’s hands. It all gets sent to McMurdo either by LC-130 Hercs or the South Pole Traverse, an overland convoy of loaders and sleds. This year over 100,000 pounds of solid waste left on the Traverse.

Despite the job’s challenges, Clair finds rewards in her work. She explains: “Most of the garbage is frozen, does not smell (usually) or rot, and there are no bugs or rodents to worry about. A big part of my job is to make sorting the trash as easy as possible for everyone else so that each department does it right the whole season. Almost 70% of the garbage is shipped back to California in February to be recycled or reused, and that’s something I am proud of. Considering how remote and limited our resources are, I am proud that the effort to lessen our impact on Antarctica, the last pristine continent we’ve got left, is being upheld.”

There’s another reward to working here: beholding Spoolhenge, a striking assemblage of gigantic wooden spools stacked in an inadvertently artistic manner, stretching on for a half mile or so. The collection is theoretically waiting removal, but I suspect its growing fame (and size) might render it an historic artifact instead. Or so I hope.

Thanks Clair for this visual treat and all the info, and to Paul for taking the time to show me around more places on station than I could fit in the blog.

One last thing: The station has two poles. One is the Geographical Pole which marks the GPS location of 90 Degrees South — or at least attempts to keep up with it as the glacier we’re on drifts towards the Wedell Sea at a rate of 10 meters a year. Hence the movable staff.

Then there’s the Ceremonial Pole, which never moves. The red-and-white prop is strictly for photo-ops. Yet it’s at this pole, strangely enough, that I had the profound sensation of standing at the very Bottom of the World. Perhaps you can tell.


Filed under: South Pole,Waste Management and Recycling — mbartalos @ 11:29 pm

January 16, 2009

The South Pole, Part 2

There’s a lot of exciting science happening here at the South Pole, much of it astrophysics. The Pole’s dry atmosphere, deep ice sheet, uninterrupted cycles of night and day, high altitude (9,301 feet / 2,835 meters) and low electromagnetic noise make this an ideal area to conduct such research.

A lot of that happens in these buildings, approximately a kilometer from the main station structure. The large white upright dish on the left is the new South Pole Telescope (SPT). The yellow dish on the right is the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI), part of the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO) named for a pioneer in Antarctic astronomy. DASI studies the cosmic microwave background radiation, the leftover glow from the Big Bang. Scientists look for anisotropies, or irregularities, in this glow for clues to the structures of the universe in its infancy.

Here I am in DASI’s dish, on 35,000 pounds of telescopic equipment supported on an 11-meter high tower. I’m sensing anisotropies…

The newer, bigger, 300-ton South Pole Telescope is a project of the University of Chicago and six collaborating institutions. The 10-meter dish and its components reach 7 storeys high, constructed during the 2006-07 austral summer. The goal is to seek out galaxy clusters in hopes of confirming the existence of dark energy which would further reveal the nature of the universe. Similar to DASI, SPT maps cosmic microwave background radiation — only more efficiently, given its array of one thousand detectors offering new levels of sensitivity and resolution.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is another unique project. Borne by its predecessor AMANDA (Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array), thousands of spherical optical sensors are being vertically suspended like beads on a string in the Pole’s 2-mile thick ice. Their job is to detect very high energy neutrinos from sources outside our solar system, allowing cosmologists to understand the nature of dark matter and other astrophysical phenomena.

I ended up taking several pictures of this IceCube Event display showing neutrinos crashing into atoms of ice in real time. The colorful 3-D motion graphics and user’s ability to manipulate point-of-view make spectacular representations of these collisions, whose resulting muons reveal the direction of the neutrinos’ cosmic source indicated by the red path.

Next: Spoolhenge (for real this time!) and the Pole’s poles.


Filed under: Antarctic Research Facilities,South Pole — mbartalos @ 11:27 pm

January 15, 2009

The South Pole, Part 1

Today I visited the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a U.S. research facility at the bottom of the Earth. I learned about the science that goes on there, saw how its waste management system works, collected objects to incorporate into my artwork, and met some great people in the process.

My day began with an early morning flight out of McMurdo. The flight to Pole takes about 3.5 hours on an LC-130 Hercules. These ski-equipped aircraft make several roundtrips a day to supply the station before the dark winter months set in. Above, our Herc on the Pole’s skiway.

The walk from the airfield to the new elevated station building was frigid; the average summer temperature here is -28°C / -18°F, making McMurdo feel like a beach in comparison. The winters are rougher still, with Pole temperatures dipping to -73°C /
-100°F.

My tour guide was Paul Sullivan, the South Pole Science Support Manager. He explained the station’s history and function as we shuttled between buildings in a Pisten Bully snow tractor.

The new elevated building is the station’s central structure. Dedicated exactly a year ago, it includes administrative offices, computer spaces, dining hall, medical lab, greenhouse, gym, lounges, meeting rooms, emergency power plant, and berthing rooms for 154 people. It supports a variety of scientific studies including astrophysics, geophysics, glaciology, meteorology, environmental chemistry and biomedical studies. The structure took 12 years and $153 million to build, requiring 925 flights by LC-130s carrying 26,000 pounds of cargo each, totaling 24 million pounds.

Snow accumulates at a rate of eight inches per year at the Pole, burying its structures with time. The original 1956 building is long gone, now under 30 feet of ice. The new building sits on 36 hydraulic jack columns and its sloped underbelly faces into the fast moving winds to help scour snow from under the structure. Yet one day, this will all be buried too.

In the meantime, people are enjoying their new surroundings. The food, like McMurdo’s, is quite good. Pole in fact makes extraordinary chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps they’d care to share their recipe with McMurdo’s galley?

The building was designed by Ferraro Choi & Associates in — ironically enough — tropical Honolulu, Hawaii. Perhaps the palm trees lining the hall have something to do with that.

The real vegetation lies in the building’s NASA plant-growth chamber. It provides winter-over residents with a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables grown hydroponically without soil, using only water and nutrients.

Back outside, the 50-meter diameter geodesic dome that served as the main station from 1975 through 2003 gets swallowed by snowdrifts each winter. Each summer bulldozers dig it out, carrying the snow nearly a mile away to minimize further build-up. But the losing battle is costly, so the iconic structure (now used only for storage) is scheduled for dismantling in the 2009-10 summer season. It may eventually be reconstructed in the U.S. according to the NSF.

Next: Neutrinos, Spoolhenge, and more!


Filed under: Antarctic Research Facilities,South Pole — mbartalos @ 11:48 pm

January 14, 2009

Lake Hoare: Day 2

The Dry Valleys are an ancient, unique, and fragile ecosystem. It remains largely pristine thanks to an Environmental Code of Conduct initiated by a nine-country panel in 1995. Its enforced Leave No Trace principle aims to minimalize impacts on the region’s biological and geological features and preserve them for study by future generations. The effort’s ultimate success though depends on continued group diligence and an effective waste management system. Here’s some of what’s involved…

Sorting one’s trash into categories is as much a way of life in field camps as it is in McMurdo. Full garbage bags are put in tri-wall boxes outdoors and then removed by helicopters with sling load nets, like the one seen around this tri-wall’s base. The boxes are stored at Marble Point over winter, then traversed over the frozen Sound to McMurdo in the fall.

Waste water must also be dealt with. Commonly referred to as grey water, it includes washing water, toothbrushing water, cooking water, any type of dirty water. Caught in buckets indoors, it’s then transfered into large drums for eventual transport back to McMurdo.

And then there’s human waste, which brings us to Lake Hoare’s famous “rocket toilet.” Not your ordinary outhouse, the toilet’s contents gets incinerated by a propane powered blast. Don’t worry, it won’t ignite while you’re seated. The burning takes place when the pit is two-thirds full, when the outhouse is empty (and marked ‘off-limits’ by a black flag), and under the camp manager’s supervision.

This is the rocket toilet’s backside. The contraption’s environmental friendliness is debated but it’s cleaner than sling-loading the waste out by helicopter given the fuel and emissions involved there. Another thing the rocket has going for it is the styrofoam seat. No cold toilet seats in the Antarctic!

The rocket toilet, incidentally, is the luxury bathroom in the field. Otherwise bottles, buckets, and bags are used (Leave No Trace here means no pee or poop on the ground) and yes, you’re expected to carry your “collection” around till you return to dump it in the collective receptacle. It’s a harsh continent.

I spent part of the afternoon hiking the hill alongside Canada Glacier’s northern edge. The path gradually rises to a height greater than the glacier itself, affording a view out over the ice. Its downward slope is positively dramatic, a feature unseen from below.

These rock formations are a common phenomenon here. What look like artfully stacked shrines by previous hikers are single rocks artfully split by Mother Nature.

Relaxing on a boulder on my way back to camp, I snapped a picture of a helicopter flying overhead…

…to find I’d been snapped back! The picture was taken by Chris Gardner, the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER Information Manager. He’s taken some beautiful photos of Antarctica during his four seasons here; I especially like the Abstract McMurdo set.

Farewell to Lake Hoare and the great people here. Hassan Basagic is a researcher collecting seasonal data for the LTER project. Love it or hate it, he’s a Night of the Hunter fan.

En route to McMurdo, a quick stop at Lake Fryxell field camp which, like Lake Hoare, uses
solar power.

A helicopter will eventually hoist Fryxell’s tri-walls to Marble Point for the winter along with all the other Dry Valleys camps’ boxes.

A reader recently asked where all the waste goes once it’s shipped off of Antarctica. The answer is Port Hueneme in Oxnard, California. From there the majority of the load goes to local mom & pop recyclers specializing in wood, metal, glass, aluminum. Hazardous waste (batteries, aerosols, fluorescent bulbs, medical and lab waste) goes to handlers in Washington State. Food waste and human waste is incinerated and the rest goes to landfill.

My last Dry Valleys sighting is Commonwealth Glacier squeezing between two peaks and spreading out like a fan, waving good-bye.


January 13, 2009

Lake Hoare: Day 1

For many, the word “Antarctica” brings vast ice-covered fields to mind. Rightly so, for that’s what most of Antarctica is. But many scientists take special interest in the remaining 2% of the continent known as the McMurdo Dry Valleys here in the Transantarctic Mountains. The Valleys receive the equivalent of only 6 mm of water on average each year in the form of snow, making them among the most extreme deserts on the planet. This ecosystem’s unique processes, biodiversity, and response to climate change attracts scores of researchers to Lake Hoare and surrounding Taylor Valley each summer season.

Lake Hoare is situated alongside Canada Glacier, looming like a frozen tsunami in the midnight sun. Katabatic winds push clouds about relentlessly, creating dramatic shifts in light across the sky. This is one of the most spectacular locations I’ve ever seen, let alone camped in.

I was welcomed by Rae Spain, Taylor Valley camp manager. This is her 11th year at Lake Hoare, the main support camp for Lake Bonney, F6, and Fryxell field camps in this southernmost of three Dry Valleys. (See a map of all field camps here.)

Operating out of this main hut, Rae provides her field camps with basic maintenance and arranges for labs, fuel, propane, waste disposal, construction and many other needs. Her job in looking after all these things, she explained, is to allow scientists to focus on their research.

Her operations are powered almost entirely by the sun. The use of generators is minimal, totaling less than 40 hours per year. Because so little fuel is used, Rae has had to order it just once in her 11 years at Lake Hoare — and that was only because fuel caches are required to be replaced every 7 years.

The solar panels were donated by NASA which has a large Antarctic presence and whose research is largely linked to extra-planetary applications. The ENDURANCE underwater bot is among the most fascinating of these projects taking place right here in the Dry Valleys.

Rae gave me a tour of the campsite and allowed me to pick a tent to my liking. I picked a Scott tent whose entry faced the glacier — a nice sight to wake up to. The camp was relatively quiet; Lake Hoare hosts an average of 8 people at any given time, with a maximum of 15.

There are no mammal colonies here and the lost souls that wander into the Dry Valleys may not find their way out. This mummified crabeater seal came up in the winter of 2003, Rae said. It will take a very long time to decompose in the cold, dry air. Some intact seals in the Valley are believed to be over 1,000 years old, but carbon-dating them precisely is difficult.

An Adelie penguin carcass lays exposed near the entrance to my tent. Sometimes he lays covered in snow but this evening he’s enjoying the mild weather, bones bleaching in the sun. This one, Rae says, has been here for at least 15 years and was likely picked apart by scavenging skuas. He looks as if he’s still up and about, with his raised head and watchful eye sockets.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at Lake Hoare’s waste disposal system and take a hike alongside the glacier. See you then.


Filed under: Antarctic Research Facilities,Dry Valleys,Environment — mbartalos @ 11:23 pm

January 12, 2009

Marble Point

The weather was a bit better today, and our helicopter was cleared to cross McMurdo Sound to mainland Antarctica. We were headed for Lake Hoare, an established field camp that serves as a hub for scientists doing research in the Dry Valleys.

The Sound is where McMurdo’s annual sea ice runway is located from the start of the summer season till early December before the ice breaks up. By now the ice is extremely fractured in places, creating stretches of beautiful textures.

The path to Lake Hoare got socked in by fog by the time we reached the coast, so the pilot diverted to Marble Point till it cleared. Marble Point is a small outpost chiefly used as a helicopter refueling station. Soon a second helicopter of scientists arrived to wait out the weather.

The setting is rather bleak and desolate but the couple who run the station are extremely hospitable and baked up a batch of cookies for their stranded visitors. They also offered me some nice rusted artifacts for use in my project. I’ll be posting pictures of these collected items towards the end of my trip.

The tri-wall box seen above is a ubiquitous sight at camps and stations. It contains sorted waste to be transported back to McMurdo for processing at summer’s end.

The fog lifted and we headed back to the helos. A nearby castaway (note shark fin — nice touch) watched on forlornly as we lifted off the heli-pad.

Next stop: Lake Hoare!


Filed under: Dry Valleys — mbartalos @ 11:40 pm

January 11, 2009

Crary Library’s Visual Treats

I was scheduled to depart for an overnight stay at Lake Hoare field camp today, but snowfall and poor visibility boomeranged the helicopter shortly after lift-off. So I perused books, maps, and charts at McMurdo’s Crary Library to inspire my project’s artwork. As expected, I came across some aesthetically beautiful material. I thought I’d share some with you here.

This stapled, yellowing pocket guide is endearing; it feels like a science ‘zine. Best of all, the penguin appears to be reading the title. The book is inscribed: “Schmidt, Dec 69, from the Univ of Wisc Dept of Geology & Geophysics Science Hall.”

An endpaper gallery of “Soviet Exchange Scientist” rubber stamps greets readers of an English-Russian Dictionary issued by the State Publishing House of Foreign and National Dictionaries, Moscow, in 1960. The penguins shaking hands in friendship is priceless.

This is a detail from a 1958 publication by the Republic of South Africa on the occasion of International Geophysical Year titled World Weather Maps, Part III, Southern Hemisphere, South of 20°S. The entire book is printed in precisely registered black-and-red line art.

I’m saving the best for last. This spread appears in Traité de Zoologie: Anatomie, Systématique, Biologie : Protozoaires, Rhizopodes, Actinopodes, Sporozoaires, Cnidosporidies: Tome I. The profusely illustrated book is as thick as its title is long, and it’s Crary’s greatest visual treat. And by the way, am I the only one seeing faces in these Myxosporea?

I can’t resist showing another page from the same book, published in 1953 by Masson & Cie. in France. This one illustrates species of plasmodium, and is signed “E. Lalau.”

If tomorrow’s flight is a no-go, I’ll be back in the library looking at this book.


Filed under: McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:49 pm

January 10, 2009

Trash Attack!

I returned to the Waste Barn today in the early afternoon at James’s suggestion. That’s
the time of day when trash is collected from the dorms and hauled up to the Barn for processing. It’s called Trash Attack.

Trash Attack starts with a large, loud loader entering and emptying the contents of its monster dumpster onto the Barn floor.

When the dumpster retreats, waste techs Ben, Alice, and Erin launch their assault.

They hurl the bags and boards into various corners of the Barn, depending on the bin or machine the material is destined for. In five minutes’ time, the central floor space is clear again.

Among the job’s perks is finding cool stuff in the trash. The Barn’s walls are testament to that, adorned with all sorts of objects made from reclaimed material. The most prominent is an Oscar the Grouch mask, the Waste Barn’s mascot, who comes off the back wall for special occasions such as McMurdo’s Icestock music festival where he’s used as the head of a parading Chinese dragon-like creature.

Next, the techs tend to their newly-formed piles. A plastic baling machine operates in one corner; an aluminum can compactor in another. I’d seen signs around town asking McMurdites not to crush their cans. That’s because stomped cans can’t be efficiently processed in the Waste Barn’s recycling compactor.

There’s a large box just for electrical wire and another for glass. In the picture above, a conveyor belt transports cardboard up to the baler near Oscar.

Trash Attack exemplifies the Waste Barn’s function at McMurdo. This is where the community’s sorting efforts are reviewed and fine tuned, mixed paper and plastics bins are inspected for contamination, glass is sorted by color, and refuse gets weighed, recorded, and packaged for removal from the continent. It’s a lot of work, made manageable only by people’s willingness to do their part in town.

Trash Attack is over and the doors close till the next dumpster arrives a few moments later. I ask Ben how he likes working here in the Barn. “It’s great,” he replies. “You sort stuff, and then you get to smash it!” Not a bad way to make a living. In Antarctica no less.


Filed under: McMurdo,Waste Management and Recycling — mbartalos @ 11:00 pm
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