8th February, 2012
I’m not sure what the long term will hold for this blog. I dont know what WordPress’s policy for deletion is for inactive blogs. I dont know what Campbell (twofrozenkiwis) has in mind for its future. Campbell and I will probably continue to make some use of it as a place online to store and or share stories and photos that isnt Google+ or Facebook. Presumably it will hang around for a while as a source of photos and info for anyone who is interested in Antarctica. From the site statistics it seems that some of the captioned photos have been indexed by google and have been viewed by people conducting google image searches. Thats pretty exciting.
In the spirit of providing people with an idea of what Antarctica is like, I have decided to contrast it with my home country – NZ.
Since coming back from Antarctica I have tried to make the most of the remainder of NZ’s summer. We’ve gone to the beach, made a water slide into a lake, got sun burnt, and eaten fish n’ chips. Yesterday I awoke to a brilliant blue sky, and I thought id take my phone for a walk to see how good its camera was at taking photos of green.
These photos were taken at Little Shoal Bay in Auckland. This is the area i’ve lived in pretty much all my life apart from a couple of stints in Sydney.
As we flew north to Christchurch the sky outside became dark around by about 9:50 pm as the sun set below the horizon!
Not sure exactly what to expect from a summers night in Canterbury, the wall of sticky heat that hit us as we left the plane was a surprise.
The amount of water in the air! the bugs flickering in the street lights! the fact we needed street lights! bare feet on ground warm enough to feel warm and not cause them to freeze solid! NZ is weird.
48 Days in Antarctica
Friday, 27th January, 2012
As we prepare to leave Antarctica tomorrow, I thought it would be interesting to show some of the changes that have taken place on Ross Island since we first arrived back in mid December.
A lot of snow has melted:
It turns out the expanses of white flat stuff around us was actually the frozen sea when boats started turning up.
And tomorrow we should be leaving all this behind as we fly back to Christchurch where the sun sometimes sets, there are more colours in nature than black and white, and your nose isn’t at risk of falling off when you go outside.
Despite looking pretty smooth from the air, Ridge A is actually comprised of a mix of icy ripples all covered with a layer of soft snow. The first people to figure this out where Gary and Braiden, they twin otter pilots who flew up there to cache our fuel. They spent 3 hours digging themselves a runway in order to get back off the ground, and told us they would not be heading out there again unless we could sort out a runway for them at the other end. So fixed wing sent us a snow mobile (which they call snow machines here…), a massive piece of iron to drag behind it and a chainsaw. We in turn then sent this equipment and Loomy (our field guide) and Chantel (a runway groomer and small engine mechanic) as an advance party, to spend hours driving back and forth in order that our delicate scientist bottoms should have the smoothest possible landing in a days time. It was somewhere around this time that fixed wing (they’re in charge of the planes) let us know that this trip was going to count against our tally of three flights in and one flight out. Craig was more optimistic than me that this was possible… at least volumetrically. Whether the plane would still be able to get off the ground was perhaps more of a problem.
The next morning was another fly day, so we packed the plane to the gunnels, leaving enough room for Craig Luke and I down the back. A parable is that any fool can build a bridge that will remain standing, but if you want a bridge that will just remain standing you need an engineer. Likewise anyone can design a box that will fit in an aeroplane.
And fit they did. The first flight out carried the IM electronics, the IM lid, The extra camping stuff we needed, the weather tower, the solar panels, a box of tool, misc, a ladder and a sledge hammer, in case our sledge misbehaved (actually the sledge didn’t fit, and the boxes slide awesomely along the snow without it anyway).
Our flight was two and a bit hours to AGAP south, which was once a 50 odd person camp servicing the mission to work out the shape of the continent under 3km of snow and ice. Currently it is just a runway and fuel depot in the middle of nowhere.
In normal air travel you fly up, fly along, and then fly down again when you get to where you’re going. In this case we flew to our cruising altitude and waited for the antarctic plateau to rise to meet us. An hour or so later we arrived, and flew low over ridge A to look at the skiway, and then landed on the next pass.
It was damn cold. It was also cold the whole time we were there. Because we were no longer at South Pole the sun started rising and falling again, but not at the right time. South pole operates on McMurdo/NZ time, and Ridge A was more like India time. This meant that the day night cycle was about 6 hours out. We still had 24 hour sunlight, but the temperature fluctuation of 15 degrees was pretty harsh. Especially since our 8am wakeup was about 2am solar time, which meant leaving a warm sleeping bag to go out into -44 degreee weather. We did that once before realising it was much better to work late (at a balmy -30) and then sleep in. Also this way Loomy brought you breakfast in bed. Which was awesome, because breakfast anywhere else would freeze on the plate in a matter of minutes. (This isn’t as soft as it sounds…)
At south pole after walking to MAPO, me and luke would ocasionally have a little bit of frosting on our beards, like an explorer in a movie, which was a great source of delight. At Ridge A this was totally outclassed as breath instantly condensed and froze on moustache and beard, causing a mass of icicles and snow. This same condesation would hit the inside of the tent, and then freeze (I am feeling so warm remembering this from the Crary science lab at McMurdo) which meant that if you knocked the wall of the tent it’d snow on you. The cold from the snow could permiate through the 3cm soles of my boots and frigify my toes if I stood in the same place for too long. Fingers likewise got pretty cold, especially since there was the odd dexterous task that needed to be completed. Depending on the time of day I wore between 1 or 3 layers of gloves and up to 2 glove warmers in each hand. Work time with bare hands is about 1 minute, thin under-gloves about 5, ski gloves is indefinite but if your hands are cold to begin with they take a really long time to warm up. Warmest were the Antarctic explorer approved fur backed gauntlets which made a huge difference to staying warm, but had all the dexterity of a flipper.
Other clothes were long johns, merino long sleeved shirt, cahart overalls, fleece jumper, Big Red jacket, beanie and goggles. This took me down to -44 without too much discomfort, so long as I was moving around. After every period of staying still we would go for our own walks across the plateau to get the blood flowing again. Luke and Craig preferred to walk up and down the skiway, while I liked to chose a direction and take a meandering walk that eventually came back to the campsite. My hope was that I might find a meteorite, seeing as any rock on the surface of the snow is almost definitely extra terrestrial out there, but alas I never did.
The first day we set up the solar panels (which was more of a challenge in softer snow) and got the IM up and running. On day two the rest of the experiment arrived at around midday and we got the pilot to taxi our batteries to the IM over some pretty bumpy ground, then he taxied back and we unloaded everything else by the fuel. With an Ikea kitset powerstation and telescope duly delivered, the pilots disappeared for their day off on Sunday. This gave us 2 days to finish everything off before they came back on Monday. This was hardly a backbreaking pace, throughout the design we had considered the possibility that the entire Plato could be installed in a day, so 3 days was pretty easy going. That afternoon we finished the IM and put the engines in the EM. Loomy kept us very well fed, mainly with butter. His field kitchen churned out delicious food and hot water all day long, making huge plumes of cloud that slowly drifted across the plateau.
Next day we finished everything off including fueling the module, applying the exhausts for the last time, burying all the cables and putting up the weather tower. Unfortunately the EM suffered a lost PDB that we didn’t have time to fix (we had a redundant one) so the weather tower isn’t doing much more than looking pretty at the moment.
Also on Sunday i went for my longest walk, heading straight into the sun. I figured out how to keep my phone from totally freezing, but still close enough to the outside of my layers to be accessible. The answer is to make the phone do as much as possible (GPS is the big one, but some questing music doesn’t hurt) which keeps it warm enough to stay on.
And then I walked back
The next day our plane was delayed, but eventually it took off a few hours late. By the time it arrived we had plato running, and the camp broken down. Our thermal mats shattered as we tried to roll them, so we tried to put them in the plane as delicate boards… i don’t think any of them survived particularly well.
But soon we were off. Leaving Plato all alone
Wednesday 25th January 2012
This afternoon Campbell and I flew back to McMurdo. We are currently scheduled to fly back to Chch on the 28th.
Here is a picture showing the 8000 km we travelled from Sydney over the last month or so:
Luke’s Diary – Day 43
Monday 23rd January, 2012
So tonight we arrived back at the South Pole after spending 3 nights at Ridge A.
What is Ridge A?
The highest point on the Antarctic Plateau – located on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, is Dome A. The Chinese were the first to reach it and have established a summer base there – Kunlun Station. They are currently running the original PLATO, and have just finished commissioning PLATO-A. If you head towards the South Pole from Dome A for a few hundred kilometers you will reach a spot that Dr Craig Kulesa of the University of Arizona and Professor John Storey and Professor Michael Ashley of the University of New South Wales claim is even dryer and calmer and only 50m lower altitude!
With an ailing economy and a reliance on the Russians to get men into space and supplies into Antarctica, the Americans ……………………………………………………………….redacted…………………………………….. ………………………………………………………………….redacted…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… sent two Kiwis and two Americans flown by two Canadians to install a remote power station paid for by Australia to claim the spot for Science!
Ridge A even has a Wikipedia page apparently – link. No, I didn’t create it, but as one of only 7 people to have ever been there, I might have to update it.
Ridge A is a flat, empty, flat, white, flat, expanse that is about 4000 m above sea level, is flat, and very cold. If you look on a topographic map of the scale of about Antarctica you will see that there is a ‘ridge’ from Dome A towards the South Pole. Dome A is the name given to the highest point of the plateau, and Ridge A is the name given to this point next to it as it begins to slope down to the south pole.
Since I cant find a good enough topographical map to post here, to give you a sense of how un-dome-like Dome A is and how un-ridge-like Ridge A is, the 4000 m contour line encircles an area roughly the size of the North Island and the ‘summit’ is only a further 93 m above sea level.
So we went to Ridge A to install a power plant that will power a tiny weeny telescope that cant even see in visible wavelengths so the Americans can say they also have a presence on the top of Antarctica. Or because we will finally be able to map the location of elemental, molecular, and ionised carbon in the Milky Way that has thus-far been obscured by galactic dust at a fraction of the cost of going to space. Which ever sounds more awesome.
So I will write about our exploits at Ridge A over the next few days, but first I’ll leave this taster for what its like to fly across the Antarctic Plateau. I was using my phone as a GPS tracker on the journey to Ridge A so I couldnt take any photos. Luckily I was able to draw the view from memory in PowerPoint so you can all experience it.