The southernmost place… in the world

The title of this blog sounds so much cooler,  if you imagine Jeremy from  “Top Gear”  saying it.

When they say that Antarctica is the highest and driest continent,  they are thinking of South Pole and a few other painfully beautiful places on the big flat white that is the Polar Plateau.  The actual elevation of South Pole is approximately 9,300 feet.    But the physiological elevation of the South Pole is usually a  thousand feet higher due to atmospheric conditions  (a similar phenomenon to wind chill) .  South Pole is dry, so, so very dry.   The average annual relative humidity is typically less than 0.05%.  Yes you read that correctly-  less than half a percent humidity (my hair looked amazing.  Do you need lotion after simply reading that sentence?).  A lot of people fall victim to the triple whammy of dehydration- accidental over exertion (so many stairs, such heavy gear) and altitude sickness.  Bring it on

For me South Pole is about two things super sexy science  and more mundane  tourists.  Some of the more important datasets related to climate change and the creation of the universe were collected at South Pole.  We also have extreme expeditioners  who walk, ski, kite, bike,  drive weird vehicles- or just pay astronomically high amounts of money to have some one fly them here.

Let me take you to the Dark Side-  or what is more formally known as the Dark Sector  where most of the  aeronomy, astronomy and astrophysics projects are  conducted.  It is called the Dark sector,  because many of the experiments rely on the total darkness of the winter to take observations.

Ice Cube is one of the sexiest projects alive-  or so says Physics World.   Ice Cube detects and studies high energy cosmic neutrinos to learn about a little thing you might have heard of?  The Big Bang?  Origin of the universe?  I didn’t go visit Ice Cube. Because well it was daytime,  the internet wasn’t working  and the scientists we off doing other things awaiting the return of internet communications.

South Pole telescope looks for super clusters of galaxies.  It has a very precise way of mapping the cosmic background radiation  to look for concentrations of very closely spaced galaxies.  After just a few years of operation,  this scope found hundreds of super clusters.  Before it used to take 30 years to find two!  Data gathered from SPT has refined the work of astronomers all over the world and greatly advance our understanding of the Big Bang  (popular topic at Pole).  They have made their data publicly available.

BICEP is related to SPUD-  I am not sure how exactly.  I think they are both look for signs of expansion of the universe with slightly different sensors  As it turns out Astrophysicts/ Aeronomers could do with some classes in communicating their science   to those not in their field.  If you want to puzzle out BICEP or SPUD for yourself look here.

Super DARN stands for Super Dual Auroral Radar Network.  That’s right,  radar.  There was some concern that if explosives were flown over the array  or brought too close they would be set off.  It was certified safe for flying explosives nearby,  but I don’t think I would want to walk too close to it.   Super DARN is a power hog and studies plasma density in the ionosphere.  In other words,  Super DARN studies space weather.

The Dark Sector is just one aspect of Science at South Pole,  but it is the only science sector I visited this year.  South Pole is, of course, the home of the cleanest air in the world and there are science projects at Pole dedicated to studying CO2 and other components of the air to better understand climate change.

South Pole, because it is “the most extreme” attracts a fair number of tourists- about 300 last year  and probably about the same this year.   South-Pole Station has taken several measures to help mitigate impacts of tourists on the local environment and on the work conducted at the station.

South Pole,  like McMurdo Station  has a lot of  “charm”

The annual  “Race Around the World” held around the actual South Pole Marker gained some fame this year.  It is a really fun event involving costumes and for some actual racing.  When you are done you can legitimately say that you ran around the world.

Well that’s it for my trip around the world…nothing left but to show you the obligatory selfies…


Antarctic Trucks and Such

Right so Antarctica is freaking cold and  often covered in ice.  Some times during the summer we can use  “normal”  vehicles,  but we have a whole  collection of neat looking vehicles that  help us deal with the extreme environment.

McMurdo Station has been around since the late 1950’s  and I think some of our vehicles have too

You might notice that a number of the vehicles seemed to be  plugged in,  well they are.   We need to keep their engine blocks warmish so they will start.   Yup, despite the sun and blue skies,  and my complaints about it being warm,  I really am in Antarctica.  Hope you enjoyed the little tour of vehicles!

McMurdo Town

Andrew suggested that I do a blog post about where I am staying.  It seems that some folks think of Antarctica as by the scientists,  for the scientists and only scientists.    The Antarctic Treaty  sets aside Antarctica for science and peace-  so we have tourists running around (mostly in the warmer Peninsula region) and a whole mush of science support activities.   This year  McMurdo town has a population of about 800.    About 300 folks are scientists- the rest are military and contractors who support the science.    McMurdo is kind of like Eureka (from the t.v. show of the same name),  but here the military works for the scientists.   So allow me to take you on a walking tour of McMurdo Town…

McMurdo Station is on Ross Island in the Ross Sea.   Ross Island is a sloping volcanic Island,  so McMurdo  is very brown and dusty.   It closely resembles a mining town.  even our population is 70% or more male!

Like most towns we have…



But there are many ways we aren’t like most towns.  For starters,  this town is funded by the National Science Foundation to support Antarctic  Science  so things look a bit like you would imagine  if a bunch of academics ran the place….

A lot of town space is taken up with storage.   Storage of cargo waiting to transit,  storage of bits and pieces that we might need later.  We have inconspicuous wharehouses but also  a tremendous amount of storage berms .

And now it is time for you to leave McMurdo Station

So first you must walk across town  in your HUGE Jacket,  pants  and nonsense boots to …

Then you hop in a shuttle that drives you across town to the very delicate snow road that leads to the airfield

Then you have a 40 minute ride to

Finally  you get to wait in

And that ends your tour  of McMurdo town.  There are a few more things I want to show you like all the cool vehicles we have,  but this post is already way too long!

It’s Christmas in McMurdo

Normally all those at McMurdo work about 10 hour days six days a week.  Christmas is a much anticipated two day holiday.  You are used to having two day weekends,  but around here two days off is something to look forward to all season.  I swear the town loves Christmas more than any place on Earth because they get two whole days off

In the days leading up to Christmas,  we have an assortment of celebrations.  I already posted about the fabulous  Christmas pageant at the Waste Barn.  Well,  we also  had what you would expect from any small town: carolers, a town Christmas party, and Christmas trees everywhere!

So that was Christmas in McMurdo in a nutshell.  Many of the work centers had Christmas  trees up-  I just didn’t get around to photographing them but….

Boom went the dynamite

Well we have had some problems with enormous (dangerous) chunks of snow falling on the main road to the airfield.   It’s a huge safety concern.    Some deadly chunks of it landed right where bulldozers were working the day before.   Since  loosing people and equipment to rogue snow sucks and blowing stuff up is fun,  guess what happened today?  That’s right, the threat got neutralized,

There was a countdown.  30 minutes,  15 minutes,  5 minutes,  1 minute

Maybe they will have to try again later and this time well and truly blow that snow up.  One can hope.

Blue Sky, Blue Ice

Today-  was a fabulous day. It started off very rocky though.   Word to the wise-  if you have to jump start your helicopter,  it is best not to play the music and run the blower  on the same trip.  Yeah, little red “low battery”  warning lights mid-flight are no fun.

Anywho,  we made it to the top of the Taylor Glacier to visit a team of scientists  who are analyzing methane trapped in ice that is 30,000-60,000 years old to learn  about  climate change.

Did I mention that this is a field camp atop a glacier  where truly ancient ice comes to the surface?  So that means it is freaking cold and very, very windy!

The drillers on this project are no joke.   Studying methane requires massive amounts of ice.  To get 20 is milligrams of methane, they must melt 800 kilograms of ice!  They have drilled 60 or so holes up to 70 meters deep- 1 meter at a time.  The camp manager says they were out drilling in 40 knot winds.

While still inside the glacier, the ice is under a lot of pressure and is very compressed.   Because the scientists are interested in the gasses trapped in the ice,  cracked cores are no good. When the ice cracks, it becomes contaminated with modern air.  They must  let the fragile ice relax and expand for about an hour before they prep it for analysis.  As the ice melts in the boiler, it releases trapped gasses  which are sucked up through the black hose.  The gasses are recompressed and packaged into something like a propane cylinder so that the scientists can take them back to their home lab for further analyses.  Some of the gas is siphoned off  to determine the age of the ice that was melted while still in the field.

For the flight back to McMurdo I got to sit in the front seat of the helicopter.  I had some amazing views as we flew over the Taylor glacier and out over the sea ice.  Of course,  the polarized and dusty helo windows did not make it easy to take photos.

It was a freaking fantastic day-  even better because the helicopter took off and landed safely (and only where we had planned to land)

Under pressure

Today is Sunday.   We have a six day work week down here  so  Sundays are much needed breaks.   Some very kind souls volunteer to lead tours on their day off  and one of those nice folks took a group of us out to the Scott Base Pressure Ridges.  What are the Pressure Ridges you may ask… Well,  we have several different flavors of ice down here.  We have glacier ice-  which is mostly on land  but could flow into the sea.  Sea ice comes is several flavors  Annual sea ice  blows out every year at the end of summer.   Fast ice  forms from the shore and is  secured to land.   Sea ice shelf, is permanent  layer of  ice over sea water.  It is much thicker than annual (or even multi year) ice.

When two or more different types of ice meet,  there is friction and dramatic things happen.   The different types of ice move at different rates.  The crack,  bump up against each other and then buckle, hence the pressure ridges

The the area closest to shore tends to be the most dramatic.  Not only is there other ice to push up against,  but there is also the land itself.   The net result is huge cracks and towering peaks.

Yeah yeah yeah,  the ice was gorgeous  (I really need to work on white balance!)  but the absolute best part about the pressure ridges,  the reason I went for a 2 hour hike in the fog on the sea ice, were…

The photos really do not do the pressure ridges justice.  It is just amazing to be walking around on the sea ice and find  gorgeous  sleepy fat Weddell seals.  All the seals were so very very very fat  indicating that there is plenty of food around for them.    They are just the sweetest most docile lovable seals ever!