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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 3, 2009

Settling Into McMurdo

This was my first full day at McMurdo Station, here on the southern tip of Ross Island on the shore of McMurdo Sound. More of a town than a mere station, it’s been America’s primary Antarctic research and science center since 1957, now able to support up to 1,258 residents at any given time. The place may not be pretty, but it’s incredibly unique. Its very existence on this continent makes it so. And whatever the views of McMurdo, the views from it (the distant ones) are quite spectacular.

Here are some important buildings I got acquainted with today:

Building 155 is the station core facility. The dining hall, laundry, library, rec office, store, NSFA photo lab, gear issue, barber shop, and television and radio studios are here. It’s a busy place.

This is the Crary Science and Engineering Center. It has a library, an aquarium, and labs for biology, atmospheric science, and earth science research. My workspace is located here, amidst some amazing people and their fascinating projects. This building will get a blog post of its own in time.

The Chalet contains offices for senior NSF and contractor personnel. Our Science Inbrief was held in its central assembly room this morning and I’d have to say it’s the most inviting room in town so far. Very Alpine, as you might guess.

The foreground building is where I live. The 3-story dorm houses up to 134 persons. All the rooms are set up for double occupancy, but I haven’t been assigned a roommate yet.

And finally, the Antarctic Fire Department which doubles as the telephone exchange/ communications center. The notion of a fire station on an icy continent may sound strange, but it’s also the earth’s driest and windiest continent, with over 100 structures
in town.

Join me tomorrow for a look inside a couple of these buildings as I start investigating the renowned McMurdo recycling system.


Filed under: Antarctic Research Facilities,McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:38 am
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