Machines on ice

The lead-in to winter is a busy time for the mechanic team on station, as they winterise all of the machinery not required, and work to keep the required equipment that will be used over winter maintained to handle the conditions.

Temperatures around -60 C (without windchill) are not kind to machinary, as any rubber gasket, hose or rubber track becomes stiff and brittle, rather than its normal malleable self. This automatically excludes vehicles like the utes/pickups, vans and Cat tractors that use rubber tyres or tracks for traction. The utes/pickups and vans were put up on blocks, and stored with the bulk of the snow(im)mobiles and other machinery and in what looks a bit like a vehicle ghost town.

The more hardy vehicles include the big Caterpillar dozers, front end loaders and LMCs. These are the options reserved for the Heavy Equipment operator to use to clear drifts, refuel outlying science buildings, retrieve equipment from the berms, or stow boxes of our waste recycyling and rubbish, which all need to continue during the winter.

Drifting from the constant wind can be dramatic and walking around the station in darkening twilight in the weeks after the sun had set at times is a comically troublesome event. Without direct light, all white snow and ice loses its contours and perception of depth, and it is not uncommon to be walking beside some buildings, only to walk into a 2 foot high drift that you did not detect, resulting in you being facedown in the said drift, followed by a quick check to see who witnessed it and would report your clumsiness back to the crew for everyones humorous benefit.

The drifting is inevitable and in most locations, is not tackled over winter, as the battle is endless and trying to gain ascendancy puts too much demand on the machines in dubious conditions. Several places need to be kept clear, such as emergency exits, entrances to the mechanics workshop etc. The rest is left for nature to build its fort, ready for the tussle to continue once winter abates and temperatures warm.

The nine months of winter does provide a chance for the mechanic team to do annual maintenance on the equipment whilst use is at a minimal, to allow them to be used at times around the clock in the frantic three months of summer. JP, our lead mechanic has just finished a major overhall on ‘Mary-Lou’, a Caterpillar D-8 dozer. All of the machines have a name, from the practical sounding tracked LMC ‘Wrench’, the sci-fi movie inspired Skidsteer ‘Wall-E’, the cult-classic referenced Waste shredder ‘Fargo’ to the effeminite ‘Emma’ or dozer ‘Sherri Anne’, and the bizarre ‘Screaming Eagle’, ‘Bigfoot’, ‘Elephant Man’ or ‘Bald Guys’.
Mary-Lou’s work included a complete engine block change, hose replacement and other routine repairs. Our work at times takes us down to the ‘VMF’ (Vehicle Maintenance Facility), where we would see the guts of the big dozer disemboweled across the workshop floor, in various stages of reassembly. At lot of the heavy equipment we have here, is of a 1960s vintage. It may well be that some of it was the same equipment that my Dad worked on during his university holiday employment at the Goff, Goff and Hamer Cat dealership in Christchurch in the early 1970s, when problems that were not able to be sorted on the ice by the American program, were instead shipped to Christchurch for major repairs at the Cat dealership.

All the equipment used over winter is stored inside the warmed VMF in between use. Even with electric circuits that warm keep the engine block warmed, which is standard practice in Summer, this is not sufficient once the temperatures drop as the sun goes. Oil becomes more viscous, hoses become brittle and snap, and seals lose their patency. Some of the snowmobiles have been modified to allow for winter ops. If stored inside, and never turned off outside, they can be used to haul water and supplies to more distant outlying buildings when needed. Just don’t stop for too long, as the rubber tracks quickly freeze to the ground, and then you’re in big trouble!

One of the pre-winter tasks we had to do was to retrieve the skiway markers that designate to the Herc pilots where the groomed skiway lies, and give a sense of depth perception in the otherwise definitionless environment. Every 50 yards or so, lies 3 canvas panels sleeves on each side of the runway, on two bamboo stakes in the ground. With no flights for the nine months, the markers are removed to stop them getting damaged or buried by the drifting. Timing the task was a case of watching the weather so we could get out on ‘Wrench’, one of the tracked LMC vehicles, with it warm enough for the machine to tolerate the couple of mile trek to get the task done, but careful to not leave it too late as the light faded. Sitting on the back of the tracked vehicle, going out to the so-called ‘End of the World’, past the last remnants of our human interaction for over 1000kms and just looking out and thinking about what it would have taken for the explorers of the historic age to get there, with none of the technology we today have, is a humbling feeling of how lucky I am to be down here.

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The long night awaits

The setting of the sun is one of the big three milestones for the winter season, with mid-winter and sunrise being occasions we still have to look forward to. Most of the crew was looking forward to what winter would bring, with the challenges of the prolonged isolation from our local fusion reactor in the sky, making us devoid of natural alarm clocks, as well as bringing some of the coldest conditions experienced on the planet. Furthermore, the lack of natural light in the night sky allows one of the true magical aspects of life down here – the ability to gaze upon the universe around us with minimal light, moisture or atmospheric distortion. Along with what promise to be amazing starscapes, the chance to see auroras is for many, one of the biggest things to look forward to over the winter.

To celebrate the going down of the sun, our Galley crew pulled out all the stops for a formal dinner for the station. Tablecloths were brought out of storage, wine glasses dusted off, and a five course meal was carefully crafted from a limited armamentarium of ingredients.
Shaggy beards were trimmed, ties were fossicked from the back of wardrobes, best pairs of jeans had their quarterly wash and most people’s solo dress shirt were ironed. The crew mustered up surprisingly well, and whilst we waited to be seated in the main dining area, we were treated to platters of specialty cheese, prosciutto and crab that had been stashed for such an occasion.
With mains of braised duck breast, lobster tail, vege medley and fresh salad, everyone was left content. The greenhouse had had a hiccup the week prior in the lettuce department, so our salad consisted of two slices of cucumber and a cherry tomato each, with a vinaigrette over top. Such is life!
With an industrial supply of liquid nitrogen on station thanks to science requirements, homemade icecream is a novel way to escape the supply of icecream that gets shipped in, but seems to absorb through the cardboard box the odour and taste of the jet-fuel near where it is stored. And a dessert is not a true american dessert without bacon, so Applewood smoked bacon liquid nitrogen icecream it was, with coffee cake and toffee glaze creations.

After everyone was filled to the gunwhales, and content with enough calories in their system to go into hibernation for winter, should they wish, we all pitched in to get the whole process cleaned up and dishes done. Their had been a poll of most appropriate sunset horror movies, with the leading candidate being ‘30 days of night’, a horror set in Point Barrow, in the far north of Alaska, about zombie vampire type beings that take over the town during their 30 day sunless period of continuous night in mid-winter. Our sunless period is six times the length, so thankfully, we could double the movie as an educational instruction on how to deal with such scenarios, should a ghost ship pull in and offload a bunch of blood sucking undesirables in the long months ahead.

One of the last remaining tasks for sunset was the bringing in of the flags at the Ceremonial South Pole. The twelve countries that make up the original signatories of the Antarctic treaty each have a flag flown at the Ceremonial South Pole during the months of light. Bringing in the flags of Argentina, Australia, Chile, Russia, New Zealand, Norway, USA, Great Britain, France, Japan, Belgium, and South Africa, as well as another copy of the Stars and Stripes, and NSF moniker that flew on the station, were all balloted out to interested individuals, and 14 of us got to lower the flags, and carefully roll up the emblems that had been battered by six months of constant sun and wind.

I got in early and was uncontested in the pick for the New Zealand flag. It was just three days after the result of our referendum popularity contest regarding the choice of whether we wanted to replace our current ensign with John Key’s favourite tea-towel pattern. Given that mail had stopped a month and a half earlier, and that the design that was challenging the incumbent was known well before, I had sought and gained permission from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that runs the US Antarctic Program, to bring down a copy of the new flag, should it be successful. Whilst I was opposed to the new design, it would have been a special opportunity to raise a new flag on behalf of our country, at the South Pole, for the first time.
The outcome of the quazi-democratic process, hamstrung by the supposed expert committee containing no-one with any flag designing experience or design expertise at all, and all personally chosen by our great leader who had openly repeatedly voiced his preference for any new design to contain a fern, ‘cos he likes rugby, and the All Blacks are great, it is unsurprising with the result we got. What was a great opportunity for our country to reaffirm our principles of what we stand for, our heritage that is important to us, and our political outlook we want to take into the 21st century instead ended up being squandered as essentially a vote of do we like sport more than the mother Britain. Whilst we are a great sporting nation, we are so much more than that, and just transplanting a complex motif from our sporting attire that is far too intricate for a flag (which are supposed to be high contrast simple shapes designed to be seen and identified from miles away at sea), belittles everything else that we have achieved as a country and what potential we have to be.

My moral conundrum of how I would feel if the new flag got voted in, and was due to be raised thankfully did not come to fruition, and so I have a copy of the flag, still wrapped up in my drawer, should any of those on the bandwagon for change want a copy that has been to the bottom of the world and back.
Rant over. Well, it is my blog, so there…

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Winter is coming…

A yearly sunset in a sight to be behold. Watching the sun gradually deflate in its gently spiralling arc towards the horizon, turning the sky from a light radiant blue, through the palette of pastel colours, back to a monochromatic diffuse deeper shade of indigo. This primed the conflict in our minds of what the excitement of what a true Antarctic experience would bring, versus what the six long months without sunlight would do to our mind and spirits.

During life at more temperate latitudes, I always rued the onset of winter, where the sun would be yet to rise on the way to work, and down before I could home to enjoy it. The melancholy that that time of the year ushered in was slightly offset by the winter and snow sports, but the return of long days, warm weather and all the activities that returned with it, provided the solace of dealing with a standard winter.

Here, life is on a much more profound scale. During the weeks of February and March, we watched the temperature drop by up to a degree a day as the suns angle of inclination dropped through the single digits, meaning a cross section of its rays were spread across an ever increasing area of ground, and with that dissipation, the warmth of the sun disappeared. At its highest point on the summer solstice in late December, the sun reaches 23.5°, which correlates to the angle of the earth varies in, compared to the ecliptic plane of orbit around the sun.

As we watched our shadows get longer and longer, the sky transitioned through shades of yellow, orange and red. Maybe one day, down here will become a lovers retreat, where you can amorously watch the sunset for weeks on end, rather than the minutes you get elsewhere.

The exact time of the sun setting is a variable entity and dependent on a range of different variables, as the resident weather experts informed us. Being on the very bottom of the planet, you would assume the sun sets on the equinox. But that assumes a perfectly spherical earth, no atmospheric impact, that you are right on the surface rather than any elevation, and the measure is of when half of the disc of the sun is below the horizon.

But what we consider to be the ‘sunset’ is when the last of the visible rays of light disappear, rather than the technical reference being just when half is visible. The sun depresses at just under one arc-minute (a measure of angular distance in the sky) per hour, and the sun is around 30 arc minutes in diameter, so it takes 15-16 further hours for the top half of the sun to disappear.

Then there is the issue of atmospheric distortion. Light hitting a more dense substance is bent towards the line perpendicular to the surface of the two different substances. It is for the same reason that were you to try and spear a fish in the water, unless directly below you, you are likely to hit a spot above it. As a result, light is bent around the curve of the earth by the atmosphere. Whilst the atmosphere here is a lot thinner than at sea level, the cold increases its density, meaning it has roughly the same density as at sea level.
When we watch the sun setting, whilst sitting on a beach back home, by the time our view of the sun first reaching the horizon, it in fact has already completely set, but we are just seeing light bent from over the horizon. The refractive effect is approximately 34 degrees, meaning that here, we get roughly another 36 hours of visible sun, after it has passed below the horizon.

Then there is the issue of elevation. The higher your vantage point, the further the visible horizon stretches. From our vantage point in the main elevated station, we can see approximately 7 miles further compared to at ground level. For each mile equates to around a further arc-minute of visibility, and therefore an extra hour of sun.

With all of these calculations and permutations streaming through our consciousness, everyone was keenly (with a dose of trepidation) awaiting the final glimpses of sunlight, and the twilight that would shepherd in winter. For those that had been there since the end of October, it was to be the first sunset in 5 months. Low and behold, the wind shifted to Grid North (heading from the warmer moister Weddell Sea region, rather than the drier colder East Antarctic plateau). Misty overcast skies mixed with windblown ice crystals to reduce the visibility to a mile or so, and ruin the views we were anticipating of the sky transitioning through its pastel spectrum.

A despondent group of Polies moped around, disappointed the chance to see this sentinel waypoint in the year looked likely to pass without our observation. But late on the 23rd, the skies cleared, and the slim sliver of the sun beamed its radiant beams around the horizon to us to everyones delight.

One of the idiosyncrasies of the setting sun is the transition in its colours. Just as the sky is blue because the blue light is scattered by the atmosphere, allowing other wavelengths to transit, as the sun sets, the sunlight passes through more and more atmosphere given its low angle of incidence. This refracts out more and more wavelengths of light, giving it a more red appearance. It is for this same reason, that the setting sun in dusty dry environments such as the subsaharan African dry season, or a smog-ridden city has a deep red appearance, due to particulates in the atmosphere affecting shorter wavelengths.

As the sun departs our line of sight and heads over the horizon, the light is bent by the atmosphere, with the red light being bent less than green and blue light. But at a certain point, the green light at the top of the sun is bent just the right about to pass to the observers position, whilst the green light of the body of the sun is bent and falls short, but red light from the body of the sun still makes it to the observer. Therefore, the elusive green flash can be seen as a green sparkle on the top of the setting sun. Typically at temperate latitudes, this happens in the passing of a few seconds, so is difficult to see, and even harder to photograph. Luckily for us, the equivalent of a few seconds of the suns path equates to minutes here, so we all revelled in peering through telescopes, cameras and binoculars to see what looked like a stream of green ants marching back and forward on the top of the sun. At times we even saw a blue flash, as the air here is some of the cleanest in the world, so even less particulates to refract short wavelength light away. This was a pretty magical evening for the crew, with a papparazzi line up of cameras busily snapping away well into the night.

This evening doubled as also being the dying minutes of my 20s. Come midnight, the last remainders of the sunset watchers sang me the traditional happy birthday ballad, as well as a more disturbing song about getting old, dying and being forgotten. At least I won’t forget what was a special way to bring in my 30s. Supposed to be the best decade right?

The clear weather also luckily were coupled with low winds, so a couple of us took up the offer to climb the Atmospherical Research Observatory’s (ARO) 50m tall meteorological tower to gain a new perspective on our barren world. From the top of the tower, on one side was the red/yellow glow of the final remnants of the setting sun. On the other, in a shroud in a pink hue, fell the shadow of the earth, from which we watched the full moon rise, reminding us that night was here, and the long winter was coming…

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Life on the wrong side of the road

Being an American base, things are obviously set up to the default conventions of life in America. The menu, recreational activities, the way the base is constructed, units of measurement, slang and the like all contain several things that are out of the norm of what I am used to. One of the things I was looking forward to was expereincing American culture, albeit in a removed, unusual environment.

The food we have contains many things that America has exported to the world (or taken from somewhere else and made more mainstream) – the hot dog, the hamburger, pizza and the like. With a basal metabolic rate that is higher than normal given the cold, one of the nice things about living here is that you can eat these things with less guilt as it is still possible to lose weight without being overly milatant with a diet.
We have a good supply of specialty cheeses from New Zealand (kikorangi blue, cumin gouda etc) that get brought on special occasions, which are fantastic, and for which I am always excited. For day to day meals though, the options are ‘American’ cheese, an unnaturally orange rubbery cheese with a industrial flavour. Or we get ‘Provolone’, which is considered to be a nicer option, but still seems somewhere between the tasteless budget brand cheese slice available back home, and the plastic that lines it. When you melt it in the microwave, it doesn’t bubble like normal cheese as the fat separates out, instead just adopting an amorphous shape, outlining the object it overlies. With no block of colby or tasty in the fridge to slice a chunk off, my marmite supplies I shipped down to myself may well last better than I was expecting!

There are several things on the menu which I need a bit of coaching through.
“Whats for lunch today?”
“French dip.”
“What’s that?” (me thinking it was some kind of french stick with side of dips and sauces to put on it)
“It’s a beef sandwich…”
It turns out, a ‘french dip’ is a pastrami and cheese roll, that comes with a onion broth, ready to be dipped into. Not what it seems from reading the menu!

The differences between tomato ketchup and tomato sauce are lost when I try and explain the subtle but important difference! It was with tredidation that some of the crew tried marmite on toast.

Then there is the baked good conundrum. Biscuits are like buttery savoury scones. And cookies aren’t biscuits. And scones are a relatively unusual concept. And Pavlova doesn’t exist, until the chefs kindly whipped some up for dinner on the day of my birthday. The chefs do a stirling job of baking here. The low atmospheric pressure warps all of the standard recipes for making bread, cakes and the like, as the rising qualities of yeast and baking soda do not function in a normal way. Despite these challenges, we still get a steady stream of fresh bread, cakes and muffins on a daily basis.

Also with nothing but a frozen wasteland for over 1000km, there are no mould spores in the air to innoculate anything, nor is there flies or other insects to worry about. We are down to the final remnants of our supply of ‘freshies’ – fresh fruit and veges that arrived over 2 months ago. Oranges are the last vestiges of anything non canned, and although they are a bit shrivelled and rubbery on the outside, they have lasted over two months here, in addition to the time it took to get there him. Quite remarkable really!

The consensus around food norms don’t just seem to clash with my own upbringing. A serial issue, and the source of much consternation, is the ongoing debate about which part of the pizza is the crust. Is it purely just the bit around the outside, or is it surface of the pizza that the topping is layed on? Ongoing polarising discussions have been ranted over to the stage where the topic has been banned from the galley. Only to be replaced by the debate about whether comic book movies qualify as science-fiction, and therefore can be screened on Sci-fi Saturday in one of the TV lounges. For the record, pizza crust is just the outside, and the bottom is the base, and comic books are definitely not sci-fi. They are their own category. Batman and Alien are not in the same genre…

Some of the traditions have been a fun novelty to experience. The Superbowl was a big deal, especially as the predominance of Colorado residents on station, due to several of the contractors being based there, meant there were plenty of supporters of the Broncos. We don’t have access to any television broadcasts, unlike McMurdo Station that gets the Armed Forces Network, which is also broadcast to all American milatary stations spread across the world. A copy of the game had to be hand delivered by one of the final flights we received in early February, with everyone avoiding all news outlets and contact that might give away the result for the 24 hours it took between the game being played and us receiving it. The galley was packed as everyone hoed in to a superbowl special of stuffed fried jalapenos, chicken wings and mozarella sticks. The victory went to the Broncos, although not in graceful or emphatic style, but at least the majority were happy with the result.

The college basketball NCAA competition has recently wound up. Back in the US, it is one of the biggest gambling events and a souce of much lost productivity as people try to pick which of the initial 48 teams will make it through to the sweet 16, and on to the final. Those that followed it down here had their picks (without the gambling), so I thought I’d throw my name in the hat. The competiton is considered a relatively even playing field with lots of outsiders beating top seeds in the competitions history. My last place in our ladder however proved that it doesn’t all just come down to chance, and if you just pick colleges based on their names, rather than a knowledge of the teams, you are destined for the wooden spoon. Maybe that’s why I’m no good at winning money at the races either…

Luckily we don’t have to drive much down here, otherwise my tendancy to hang left may prove to be an issue. I obviously knew that Americans drive on the right(wrong) side of the road, but for some reason I did not extrapolate that to passing people on tight staircases, or hallways. After a few awkward encounters, I quickly realised the folly of my ways.

Several other things took a little bit of getting used to. All light switches are flipped upwards not downwards to turn on. Temperatures (something that is talked a lot about down here) are variably quoted in Farenheit or Celcius, mass is measured in pounds not kilograms and distances are in yards or miles. Their rules of Pool are bizzare. I have introduced some of them to the superior game of Billiards, with the failings of my memory not being held to account for no-one is anywhere the wiser.

And the week on a calendar and for book-keeping starts on Sunday and finishes on Saturday. The term week-end must have been lost when being shipped across the Atlantic centuries ago! Our work week here is 6 days a week, with 15 minutes worked every day, that allows us to have a two-day weekend roughly once a month. Our day off is Sunday, but when the second day falls, we take the Monday off, as it allows our days off to line up better with the weekend in the USA, which are just under a day behind. The two day weekends are scheduled to fit with the American public holidays, which will be things to look forward to. Thanksgiving is after we will be off the ice, but July the fourth will be something to look forward to biggest. I hope we have a copy of Independence Day somewhere!

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The last labour of Hercules

What we thought was to be our last flight turned out to be a false start. The window of opportunity to get a plane on the deck here is often transient, and predicting it four hours out as the plane gets ready to depart Willy Field at McMurdo is challenging. Sure enough, we were informed that ‘Skier 2-1’ had checked ‘Pole 3’, a navigation waypoint 3/4 of the way here, 210 miles out. The conditions outside were not looking favourable with strong winds blowing a lot of snow and reducing visibility well less than the mile needed to land on the skiway. As we huddled out at the Fuel shack wrapped up to the nines, waiting to see if anything would loom out of the mist, we heard the roar of the Herc pass overhead, barely visible through the cloud even though it was what seemed about 50m off the ground. After circling for a couple of hours, hoping for a clearing in the weather, it headed back to McMurdo, several hundred litres of jet fuel worse off.

The next day looked more promising, with a clear day with good vis. The approaching Herc was visible a way out, as it made contrails in the cold air, right on the edge of its performance limits. The last flight proved to be a chance to expand my skillset. I was lucky enough to have the honour of the role of marshalling the last LC-130 on to the skiway apron. Guided by John, one of the fuels operators, who was lining up the fueling port on the plane with the hose of his fuel bowser, I ushered the plane forward using my new found moves that were something of a cross between Billy Bowden and a 80s dance floor. The roar of the planes is always impressive, seeming all the more impressive when you are looking right into the cockpit.

The crew for the last couple of flights, practiced their combat offload, where they push the palletised cargo out the back cargo ramp as the plane is taxiing down the apron. This avoids them coming to standstill, putting hydraulics and other cold sensitive parts at risk in the Antarctic conditions, or in combat zones, more time in an at risk environment.

Over the summer, the frequency of flights means that the US Air Force stipulates a full firefighting team is on station, to deal with any potential accidents or events. As the flights draw to an end, the fire crew are on the flight out, with our trusty band of mechanics/scientists/IT guys/electricians come firefights, ready to step up. Manning ‘Elephant man’, the fire fighting tender, and trained in a crash course (so to speak) in firefighting in Denver before we deployed, these guys are ready to step up and deal with any mishap that might happen on the flight line, or during the whole season, anywhere on station.

It is always an emotional day when you say goodbye to the last of the summer’s crew, who represent your last contact with the outside world, but more importantly, you last chance to escape should second thoughts about the lucidity of spending 9 months cut off from the world.

It is a tradition that on the last flight, the crew does a return pass over the base to tip their wings goodbye to us. This hasn’t always been followed in previous seasons, much the chagrin of the seasoned veterans who see it as a marker of good fortune for the long winter ahead. As the plane taxied to its position on the long run out the skiway, we all scattered to different vantage points, hoping that the path taken would provide us with the optimal shot to see the flyover from. As the plane lifted off, I legged it to the Ceremonial South Pole, with the station in the background. After what seemed to be a disconcertingly long time, where we weren’t sure it would come back, the roar of the four turboprops soon reappeared, and sure enough, the Herc came down out of the sun, in low over the base, banking to the left to avoid the (flight operation free) Clean Air Sector before, passing back towards Grid South, and on their way back home.

The 48 of us, now left to our own devices could now wander what seemed to be a ghost station given the efflux of 100 residents in the preceding week. If being isolated for nine months is not bad enough, some black humour has been well instilled in to the traditions here. Why not watch a horror about being stuck in Antarctica in the dark with alien monsters. Well, why not watch three different reincarnations of the same classic! ‘The Thing’, first filmed in 1952 and set at the North Pole, has been made twice more with the second two installments being set in Antarctica. Our marathon session had to be delayed to that weekend, but we got to watch Kurt Russell in all of his 1980s goodness, followed by a more modern version. Afterwards, we all went to the storeroom to pick up our government issue flamethrower for the impending alien onslaught.

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Facebook, just over the horizon

Communication satellites are predominantly equatorial, orbiting the planet in a sinusoidal fashion over the tropics. Being right at the bottom of the planet therefore poses a difficulty is ‘seeing’ them, as they hidden by the curve of the earth for much of their trajectory. We have access to three different satellite constellations, each with different windows and bandwidths. NATO IV B, which is part of the NATO communication network is the first we see each day, followed by the more antiquated GOES satellite. Lastly, SPTR which is accessing the NASA TDRS constellation that is used to communicate with the International Space Station gives us their left over bandwidth, when not doing live video links or other work. It is via SPTR (‘spitter’) that we can have any hope of up or downloading photos, documents or anything more bandwidth intensive. There is hope to get access to a new satellite in the coming months, which is gradually decaying in its orbit as it ages and runs out of fuel to reposition. It is falling out of its path over the tropics, instead straying further down over the Southern Hemisphere, and becoming visible to us as it peeks over the horizon. The highest angle we can see it above the horizon is a miserly one degree, but that is enough to get a lock and a couple of extra hours of internet, to stay connected to the ‘real’ world. In fact, even when it is over the horizon, the atmosphere allows bending of the signal (’atmospheric ducting’) so a signal can be locked even if line of sight is not formed.

A day on earth (solar day) is measured by the time it takes us to go from having the sun in the highest position in the sky, to it being back to that position. That takes 24 hours. The earth however only takes 23 hours and 56 minutes to do one complete turn on its axis in relation to the background stars (sidereal day), but during that time, it has also orbited the sun by 1/365 of an orbit. So as we are orbiting in a circle, earth needs to turn a bit further to get to be looking back at the sun otherwise we’d be looking in the same direction as yesterday, which is now off to the right of the sun. This four minute difference of the sidereal day to the solar day over the course of the year equates to a further full turn. What that means for us on a day to day basis, is that as the satellites are locked in to a set position in the stars in the sky, we turn back to see them at that same spot every 23 hours 56 minutes. So out internet window gets 4 minutes earlier a day, or around 2 hours earlier a month. Now instead of getting internet from around 9 o’clock at night through the night when we first arrived, we get it around 4pm.



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The countdown to isolation

The weeks following our arrival was full of bustle, as the summer contingent worked frantically to finish projects in the relative ‘warmth’ that summer provided. The grantees running the science experiments overhauled their equipment and upgraded control units, the carpenters worked to finish the construction of a new Balloon Inflation Facility (BIF), the cargo team packaged up outgoing scientific cargo, waste and worn out equipment being retropackaged back to the US, and took inventory of the supplies coming in to last us the 9 months until the next sign of civilisation. The mechanics prepared to winterise a lot of the equipment that becomes unusable as the temperatures drop with the lowering angle of the sun in the sky.
In the medical department, we had a week and a half with Sarah, the outgoing summer doctor, trying to learn all the nuances of care at the worlds most southern health facility. Where were the supplies to treat Glycol ingestion, how did the video teleconference equipment work, who did we have to report to each week about developments on station, where were the cleaning supplies for the station, how did the lab and x-ray machines work. The multitude of equipment and procedures that we are responsible for is diverse, with many roles sitting outside of our normal medical duties back home, so whilst we are well versed in reading x-rays, actually taking them ourselves has been a learning curve.

The last week of scheduled flights from McMurdo to the Pole amped up, bringing in crucial cargo for science, life or maintenance. We had up to 3 flights a day for the last week. Part of that cargo included our supply of ‘freshies’ – the last fresh fruit and veges that we would see until November, other than that grown in the Greenhouse. As the pallets of freshies, package mail and beverages were brought up to below the station, all available sets of hands trundled out to make a ‘daisy chain’ ready to pass up the sacks of spuds, amazon purchases, cartons of Dr Pepper and boxes of swedes. Interestingly, none of the Americans had any idea what a Swede was, including the chefs. Mind you I had never eaten them until I went to University in the South Island. It seems that they only exist south of the Cook Strait, including down here.

The close of regular summer operations elsewhere on the continent meant that we had several smaller aircraft transiting through. Kenn Borek Air, a Canadian company, runs the majority of the Twin Otter and Basler aircraft on the continent. The Baslers are marvellous beasts. Modified DC-3s (C-47s), they have been stripped back, lengthened, and turboprop engines fitted, ready to serve Antarctica, much like the many civilian and military roles that they have faithfully served in the previous 75 years. The last Basler we had come through was an upgraded version of the same airframe used in Operation Market Garden, the 101st Airborne Division’s battle to take ‘The Bridge Too Far’ at Arnhem in 1943. These aircraft, many of which had been ferrying small research teams around the continent, transit through South Pole to refuel, rest the crew and get updated weather before heading onwards. Their next stop is normally either Union Glacier closer to the Weddell sea, or ‘Sky Blue’ – another refueling stop near the base of the Antarctic Peninsula. From there they head to Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey Base on the Antarctic peninsula, then on across the Drake Passage to Chile, then several more hops up the continent until they finally get home to Calgary, Canada, ready for the Northern summer season. They are fitted with transport fuel tanks taking up the bulk of the space inside, but even so, the range can be dicey if the conditions don’t play ball. We thought we had said goodbye to the last Basler and Twin-Otter, only for them to return that night after getting too low on fuel to make it to their destination due to strong head winds, and have trouble with wings icing up.

The impending close of contact with outside civilisation also meant a last chance to send mail that could be postmarked from the South Pole. The weather was disrupting the flights, so all of a sudden, the deadline to send postcards loomed, and I scoured the postshop for anything decent to send home. Unfortunately, the postcards seemed to be dated in the late 90s, with no up to date shots of life down here. Our mail is under the care of the American Army Post Office system (APO) which allows us to send mail as if we were in the States. Not as helpful when most of mine is destined to New Zealand, but instead goes to Christchurch, gets forwarded on to the States, then back to New Zealand a couple of weeks later.

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