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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

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