My year on the Ice

by wonderfullyrich on October 28, 2013

I just finished watching Anthony Powell’s “Antarctica: A Year on the Ice” and having spent over a year on the Ice now (minus 3 weeks for a round trip home) it puts many things in perspective.  It’s nearly the end of October, and my brain does finally feel like it’s returned to a nearly normal operation.  I still either “Ummm,” blank out, or stutter much more than I normally do, but I feel the winter hibernation has nearly shaken off.  

Watching Anthony’s movie, listening to people who I know personally, be interviewed and portray in the length of a feature what it’s like to be on the Ice for a full year evokes all the highs & lows of my last year.  Around WinFly I lost the motivation, subject matter, time, and even the brain power to articulate what’s going on in a written way.  This is a minor step towards that return, provoked by this documentary that is so much of what has become a part of my life.  

It’s not just McMurdo that is a part of my life, but timelapses, photography, video, facilitating creativity, and engaging in pushing my own boundaries.  Many many things in his film resonated with me, obviously because I harmonize with his sort of a life–both as he was an IT person in McMurdo as I am, as well as being a tech/photo geek–which has made it strange to anticipate it and live it’s premier here on the Ice after a year here.  

I just lived the scenes he portrayed.  I saw the nacreous clouds which entirely blew my mind. I know what it’s like to miss the dark, but not the day.  I still am impervious to cold in a way that I’ve never been (as many of you will attest to I hate the cold, but after a winter here I sort of enjoy it now).  I empathize when Keri talks about not thinking about things back home you want such as a Chipotle Burrito, or a swim, etc. you just put it out of your mind and adapt to the now (or you go crazy with obsession).  I know what it’s like to want to both hug the new people, and cringe at the noise they make in the galley making me want to run and hide in my room.

He’s done a wonderful job of portraying the life I have just lived over the last year and I’m entirely jealous he’s been able to portray it so well.  I have a large library of film, photos, and timelapses that I wanted to build into my own memory database, which seems like I’m going to have to repurpose.  My jealousy battles with my happiness he’s done so well, winning awards and create a successful movie.  He’s giving us a tool (better than Hertzog’s Encounters at the End of the World) to say, this is our life.  

There is much he’s left out.  Some I’m sure was left on the cutting room floor, some he couldn’t describe as the NSF would get mad, and others was just artistic license.   Of course how would anyone put the 8500 hours of life in a year into a feature length production.  Some missed notions, for good or ill left to be further explored in future productions.  He only alluded to the ground hog nature of this place. How people really do not have a successful winter. What policy makers have done to this place over 50 years. The struggle of logistics that 10 million pounds (plus several more millions by plane) requires. He alluded to the struggles of relationships both on and off the ice, but this could be a film unto itself. Etc, etc. etc. 

I haven’t spent 5-15 years on the Ice like many of those in the film.  In fact this is technically only my 4th season on the Ice, 3 summers and a winter, with my first summer season 7 years before the next three.  If all goes as planned though, I’ll have been on the Ice for about 17 months (minus those 3 weeks mentioned earlier).  Which is probably the last time you’ll hear about someone having done that.  (I’ve been grandfathered in under new rules.)  It’s a strange and unique accomplishment.  I’ll definitely be back for another winter in a few years, and for more time on the Ice between here and there, assuming the ghost of uncertainty that looms over the Ice doesn’t snatch it away from me. (Such as the idiots in congress.)

I wonder what toll this will take on me, my relationships with family & friends, and how this will change me.  Before I moved rooms a few weeks ago, I spent double the time in my assigned room than I had in some apartment leases. My tunnel vision has McMurdo feeling more like home than the foggy memory of my childhood home.  Yet, as people like to keep reminding me, I can’t live here.  No one ever does by law & policy, and nor would I want to.  It’s a surreal profound existence that is always an amazing physical/personal journey, but with no sense of permanency.  How do you portray that to a population that is–generally speaking–pretty settled?

It’s some thing for me and for us to ponder in the future along with the possible visions of humanity.  I hope to share in furthering the research and culture that the Ice has created, engaging in it’s evolution and keeping it useful to humanity’s knowledge base.  For now, I put one foot in front of the other hoping to keep my body & mind in good shape to finish my work in good order and stay happy & sane.  Till next time.


Time on Ice

by wonderfullyrich on August 9, 2013

I’ve been living on the Ice getting close to a year now.  If all goes as planned I won’t leave for another several months.  I asked previous Winterover’s if they thought there was any long-lasting effects to a Winter on the Ice, specifically thinking about physiological or psychological impacts, but the response was “More Winters.”  I can’t speak to the validity of that addictive nature given it’s my first winter, but I do think there’s something addictive about working/living in Antarctica.  

Like any addiction, it comes at a cost.  We may walk away being able to pay off student loans, debt, or go on a nice vacation to recuperate, but we trade this intense period of work & play in this extreme environment for those possibilities.  I believe we may also do so in the normal world as well, but here it’s more apparent.  

We work 54 hour weeks on the ice, so 6 days a week we are generally at work by 7:30am and done by 5:30pm.  We have an hour off for lunch and two 15 minute stretch breaks, but it‘s really more like 10 hours a day at or near work (maybe a nap, exercise, or something short thrown in).  In theory we should get 8 hours of sleep, so that’s 18 hours accounted for, and that leaves you with 6 hours between quitting time and bed.  Realistically you’ll spend some time at dinner, some time working out, or running errands, or exercising the social part of our brains, and walking all these places, so subtract another hour or two that you really have maybe 3 to 5 hours of your own time.  With one day off, where we can go hike a trail, sleep in, have a party, or generally disengage from work that’s about 40 hours a week that you can fully devote to something.  

It may seem like a lot of time, but break it into small chunks and then think of all things that fill up those slots around here.  Yoga for me, Big Gym activities like Volleyball, Basketball, Soccer, etc, or watching a movie on the cable system, or going to the library and reading, or playing a board game with friends, or a birthday/anniversary/random party, or writing to family/friends/blog, calling home (during lunch to account for time zones), fixing holes in your pants, or making a dress (for those crafty enough), shooting/editing a video (for the 48 hour film festival), or preparing for the next big station event like the 4th of July or Sandwich and Bryan’s Wedding, or just vegging out and letting your body heal (slowly).  Perhaps that should have been more than one sentence, but it really all does string together down here.  Indeed we all do it to some degree, but you can really feel the effects down here. 

Something about Antarctica tends to make you heal slower here too.  Maybe the extreme dry environment, the cold, the food, the long work periods, or something.  Things that take a week to heal in the states take a week & a half or longer.  

I’ve tried hard to keep my mind and body in good shape down here, but it’s been an uphill struggle. I don’t ever get enough of all the things I need to stay healthy. I’m always sacrificing one thing for another.  Either it’s sleep, or socializing (which staves off loneliness and depression),  or exercise to keep the body capable of everything, brain stimulation (reading/writing/creativity), or meditation (for me at least), or work, etc, etc.  This is true of food too, I would prefer to eat healthier, but it’s a catch 22, as I need to eat as we need fuel in a cold environ, however my options are limited to what is served (which are free) which is–inspite of the galley doing the best they can–often carb, fat, fried, heavy or out of a can boiled veggies and occasional sprouts; we are always trading off.  

So after months of working back and forth on these sacrifices, we all tend to get worn down.  For me one side tends to win for a while and then another requires attention so I oscillate (hopefully in small amounts).  It’s balance of a sort. With no real vacations down here (two day weekends are nice, but don’t repair bodies or brains), we tend to sacrifice some of our life to live here and either enjoy the unique people & place that is antarctica, or meet those financial goals, or both.   Although I think it’s possible I think very few people down here manage to live sustainably, we live on the edge and tend to enjoy it.  

With all this in mind, I leave you with a thought that Phil Jacobson imparted to us at Sandwich & Bryan’s wedding.  Time is the most valuable currency we have on the Ice.  In the case of the wedding we gave of it freely and reaped much in reward, as we often do here on the Ice.  I believe this paradigm transcends the Ice, but I think we occasionally lose perspective of the value of our time.  Carpe Diem!


Winter Science at McMurdo

by wonderfullyrich on July 31, 2013

So we have 141 people down here this winter.  In years the past population has risen to as much as 250, but will probably remain fairly low in near term winters to come.  I could give you a breakdown of what each person does, but what is interesting is how few of these people are doing any science on station.  If you include the 12 at Scott Base there are basically three people doing science.  Two of these people are techs, who although they are capable of doing real science, are hired to monitor & fix long term measurement projects.  One person on station directly works for a institution of learning and is working on a winter science project.

So we have 3.2% of station touching science.  The other 96.8% of the people are keeping this place from being overrun by the environment and preparing it for the wave of people at summer.  It gives you an interesting perspective on how harsh this place is when you realize that your overhead has to be so high.  I admit it’s not exactly a fair representation, as it doesn’t reflect the fact that we are also the logistics hub for field camps and South Pole, nor does it describe the total money spent during the year (NSF grants are something near 10% of the Office of Polar Programs budget).  With that said, it’s a place where numbers alone show how different this place is.  

So what science do the 5 people on station actually do?  Well we have many long term projects.  By far the biggest down here is NASA MGS, then we have McMurdo Lidar Project which is an atmospheric laser and is the only other actively manned science project down here, both of which I’ll talk about later.  There are quite a few others, but it’s been hard to narrow down what is active and not.  You can see a comprehensive list of all the projects (Summer & Winter) on the USAP 2012-2013 Science Planning Summaries page, this is a fairly good list but it’s missing NZ Antarctica’s contributions:

  1. Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) which is nuclear explosion detection (science and international law in one package) and it’s using infrasound. Read the wiki article here on CTBT.
  2. Similarly the Air Force (AFTAC) is doing the same thing using a different technique (seismic) at Mt. Newall & Bull Pass in the Dry Valleys.  Here’s an interesting article on a recent visit. (G-078-M)
  3. Mount Erebus Volcano Observation (MEVO) which is more passive during winter, but they still collect sensor data.  They have a facebook page.
  4. Weather data collection, Automated Weather Stations (AWS) & satellite imaging both for local weather and outside study University of Wisconsin (The satellite imaging hardware I directly support and find fascinating!)
  5. UV & Ozone layer research by the NOAA at Arrival Heights (and South Pole).
  6. CosRay Neutrino and Cosmic Ray Detector (not Ice Cube, rather one of its precursors) which will move in 2 years to the new Korean station.
  7. Observations of lightning, a world wide lightning listener at Arrival heights. (Very Cool!)
  8. Studies of solar wind using a Micropulsation Magnetometer at Arrival Heights.  Long term observation, but I really don't know what they do.
  9. Observation of the earth magnetic field and solar radiation (Magnetosphere & Ionosphere) using Broadbeam Riometers, IRIS, and a Auroral Photometers.  Liz the Research Associate tells me these guys have a huge number of instruments, and it's confusing.  They have some cool things though, like an Infrared all sky camera which doesn't like the moon ("Bright light, bright light!")
  10. ANtarctic Gravity Wave Imager Network (ANGWIN) (A-119-M)  I really don't know what these guys do.
  11. SuperDARN Super Dual Auroral Radar Network.  Hugey (say that with a Korean lisp) antennas strung out in a line to detect auroras. (This is a decent top down view)
  12. UNAVCO’s test GPS station here in McMurdo up near the Bore Sight/Observation Hill Camera (unrelated but one of the most publicly visible parts of our station).  UNAVCO offers centimeter or millimeter precise location info to other projects and has a test rig in town.
  13. IGS satellite tracking station in Crary.  It tracks both GPS & GLONASS (russian) satellites to provide reference data for other projects. (G-052-M)
  14. This last one is sort of a question mark to me. Ozone studying/Austral high-latitude atmospheric dynamics sort of tells me it's related to similar things as what McMurdo Lidar is doing, but I'm unsure of it.  In any case it was  cut this year so some stuff was cleaned out.

Back to the big things.  McMurdo Ground Station (MGS) is the busiest satellite tracking station in the Near Earth Network Service (NEN or NENS depending).  They do about 25 support passes per day of weather, radar, solar, earth imaging, oceanographic, atmospheric, and launch tracks.  There’s not another active south polar Ground Station during the winter, and we have a big bandwidth pipe, so many of the Low Earth Orbit satellites prefer to downlink here.  They can and do downlink in Alaska or Norway, but that’s 45 minutes later then what we can give them (half of a 90 minute orbit).  When you are dealing with weather that’s breaking now, that can be a big deal.

They have 2 people full time who are in the same building as where I work and is named for it. the Joint Space Operations Center or JSOC as we call it, aka Building 189.  They occupy the first floor and we just call them NASA even though the two who work there are Honeywell employees. It used to take up racks & racks in that first floor to support the 11 meter dish (in the golf ball up on the hill outside toward arrival heights). Now though it’s 2 rows of about 8 racks and that includes redundancies.  

In a side note they built the JSOC with the idea that the servers & equipment would do the heating (actually a brilliant idea in a way), but the problem is technology marched forward, old bulky equipment got thrown out, and now heating is actually required.

I work on the second floor in the Network Operation Center or NOC, which is also where the Help Desk is and all of our servers.  I often get to talk to NASA about random things going on.  It’s quite useful and fun to have two engineers below.

The McMurdo Lidar project is up in the Kiwi building (this green building) at Arrival Heights.  It’s very cool for science geeks.  WeiChun (our current winterover PhD student for the project) goes up on clear days and spends as long as he can stay awake firing two non visible pulse lasers into the atmosphere, exciting Iron particles in the stratosphere into different energy states.  Once excited they begin to reflect back and he can measure their temperature, concentration, and height. It’s interesting to see how the sunrise affects this along with the auroras, etc.  They can also detect Noctilucent clouds technically known as polar mesospheric clouds, which is of some other apparent scientific interest.  (I’m looking forward to the Nacreous clouds or Polar stratospheric cloud which should become visible in a few weeks.)

The project is based out of UC Boulder where they built it and maintain another two lasers.  They've had this same laser apparatus at Rothera and South Pole as well.  Currently they are using an Alexandrite laser (also used for tattoo removal ironically enough) which they are looking to upgrade in a few years and it'll give them more data retrieving capabilities, such as wind speed.  Fascinating if you are into that sort of stuff.

I've mentioned Arrival Heights several times, but let me expound a little.  Arrival Heights is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) which is unique for several reason, but the most important of which is that an electromagnetic quiet area.  Things like the lightning detector work well because there's so little interference, or did until we put the wind generators at T-site in a few years ago.  Arrival Heights is definitely considered out of town and it requires notification/permission to enter.  It's entirely devoted to science and is protected for its value in that arena.

I mention that because it's where we find our other two science engineers.  Liz is the 4th person who's on station dealing with science.  As the Research Associate she is responsible for everything else in the list above.  Most of it's at Arrival Heights with only a few in town at Crary (the most expensive science lab yet built).  Liz will visit the white building at Arrival Heights every day (except Sunday) to check on the instruments.  During the Winter she's got to do it without headlights past the sign (basically half a mile) to keep from disturbing instruments.  In the past, previous RA's have gotten caught in bad weather so they have it fitted out with a bed, yummies, and a jet toilet (incinerates nicely, but smells horrible).  This is also true for the kiwi building for WeiChun and Tim, but I don't know if any of them have had to sleep up there yet.  

I think of Arrival Heights as Liz's domain but it's also inhabited by the kiwi green building which Tim at New Zealand's Scott Base maintains.  He's the 5th person who supports science.  Of course the kiwi building also has has the McMurdo Lidar Project so WeiChun also visits.  Unfortunately I don't have a list of what science the Kiwi's are doing, but I'm sure they are having fun at it.  I know Tim stays busy keeping track of it all.

Hopefully that gives you decent overview of the science I have been supporting this Winter, being part of the other 96%.


Groundhog days and tshirts

by wonderfullyrich on June 10, 2013

Midwinter dinner is now less than two weeks away.  It sort of a dual celebration of the northern solstice and the middle of our deployed winter, although they coincided perfectly.  In my case it’s pretty close as I’ll be here till mainbody/summer, but for those who are out at winfly, it’s a little late.

In spite of the preparations and activity around the Midwinter dinner preparations, the days are definitely somewhat blending together.  I think of it as a ground hog day, after the Bill Murray movie.  We actually have more buildings, more things to do around here than most places on the continent.  This Winter we have Big Gym (ball sports), Gerbil Gym, a Weight Room, a open area Fitness room, Coffee house, 4 lounges, a Library, a “hot tub,” 3 saunas, 1 bar (with occasional burger cooking ability),  a computer kiosk area, a station store, one reservable “hut” (full kitchen, grill, lounge, & deck),  5 hikeable routes (some require pairs and radios), the Galley, and your own room.  There’s more fiddly bits, but you can see in the broad outline how we have lots packed into our station.  Inspite of all this stuff and all the events that we have pack into our week, it’s easy to get lost in the routine of it all.

Someone said something during a SAR training a few weeks ago which has stuck with me.  When you are checking A&O (Alert and Oriented) levels and ask what day is it, accept answers cookie day, cup cake day, pasta day, burger bar, trivia, waffle day, etc. We don’t delineated by driving to work, as we always eat at the same place and see the same people, so our markers are not calendar events.

To digress for a moment, it’s getting tougher for me to write coherently these days. What we call being “winter toasty” has set in and impacts our mental abilities.  In this way I apologize for the even more odd ball writing that you’ll get out of me.  I’ll talk about it in the future if I can sit down and write it up.

Anyway speaking of events, we just had the Tshirt/sticker vote.  As we only have 141 people on station now, we can’t make a bunch of different designs of tshirts and stickers.  Rather we submitted a few designs, then we voted.  You can see the ones I’ve submitted below, some of which might not have been in such good taste due to news about the previous medevacs, but they didn’t win so I won’t be printing them.   I did want to share them as you might find them funny or fun. 


Good Crew

by wonderfullyrich on May 23, 2013

The most remarkable joy of my return to the Ice 7 years later is the amount of joy and laughing I’ve be apart of during these last two seasons.  This last summer I started by everything being last minute and so was delivered into the Network Operations Center (NOC) without knowing any of my direct co-workers.  It was lucky then that the season was so touched by such enjoyable people.  

Although I definitely got work done, I always felt like the work was an interlude between laughing fits. Jeri especially was the touchstone of the NOC.  If she laughed, we would laugh.  Anthony, sitting right behind her, often turned around an emitted something as if he was a time traveler from the future who’d only studied the wrong era of language.  Ryan threw in some great practical jokes.  Arien, well… the humble ego (which apparently is possible) with his snap shirts and pushups goading was always, always, getting Jeri to laugh.  

The I.T. table was one that people seeked out, rather than avoided for being the nerd table.  Many times we were looked at from a full galley due to the entire table laughing hysterically.  I came to look forward to the lunch hour as our laughing hour.  I’m sure we didn’t laugh every day, but I’ll likely remember that we tried.  

The strange part is that I don’t remember much of the inside jokes, nor the stand up comedy, or of Anthony’s odd euphemism.  What I do remember is the smiles, people turning red from belly laughs, the need to breath, and wonderful emotional releases everyone had throughout the Summer season. 

So too it has continued during the Winter.  There are many days I look forward to during the week.  Particularly Volleyball on Tuesday, and the every other week Trivia Wednesday nights.  Volleyball, funny?  What? Really?  Yep, the very definition of ROFL.  We have developed a rapport that allows for the amazing, the breath taking, the simply strange, and the wonderful to take place in a 40 year old falling apart gym.  What’s more is how much our volleyball has actually improved in addition to the silliness that ensues.  Beyond the silly jousts, spikes, and rejections, that we all acclaim, we now also get amazing saves with energetic foot work and not a touch of antics.  By far the most hysterical thing I’ve heard of so far is a jammed finger that transmuted into playing with mittens, and by all rights playing well.  It’s a bit of jungle ball, but it’s fun and we blow off steam.  Very enjoyable, yet slightly competitive. 

Trivia night is a similar night for letting loose.  Somehow, although it’s generally very loud, we always manage to end up with very happy people.  Hartman and Sarah both the best and worst moderators for trivia.  Best for the antics and worst for speed. Sniping, side bets, peanut gallery corrections, and distractions of all types.  They set the bar high for the visiting trivia judges, and so far they’ve delivered. 

Finally, and most beloved by me right now, is our “Family Table” in the Galley.  As opposed to the single 5-8 spot round table I.T. that was normally used, the Winter has a very unique table.  Right now it’s 4 rectangular tables, strung together to seat about 10-20% of the station, or  as many as 30 people at it’s height. No one has specific spots, we randomly sit at the table when we aren’t visiting.  Conversations happen in all corners and in if you don’t catch the joke at one end, one will soon happen on your end.  I won’t say it’s all lovey dovey, but people seem to get along really well.  The longer we’ve been around each other, the more the inside jokes have heighten.  Someone mentioned that ground troops get this way, so familiar that one jokes just roll on into the next prank, which delivers them into the next old story, etc.  

I can’t sit at it every meal or every day of the week, but when I can I love to hang around and mingle.  It may not be a joke, or a story, but a conversation that I’ve found very satisfying.  It’s the people that really make this station run, sometimes we get lost in the politics on station, the whining and bitching we all do, the inanities of a “Groundhog Day” life, but this–my first winter–has been wonderful one. 


The Trials of Commuting To Pegasus

by wonderfullyrich on May 13, 2013

A few days ago I went out to Pegasus preparing for flight ops to work on a troublesome weather computer exhibiting strange networking problems. Driving back from Pegasus I got caught in a Herbie and it went from Condition 2 to Condition 1 in all of 10 seconds.   During the ensuing seven hours waiting, aligning with the convoy, and finally getting back to station, I was inspired by a comparison.  

Every year, Denver get’s beautiful snow storms.  They are likely increasing with frequency, but are more erratic than even in my childhood.  Yet those days that Denver get’s dumped on by 2 feet of snow in a few hours (even in May), brings the city to a crawl.  I have many memories of getting stuck in snow, in snow traffic, or being hindered by snow in Denver.  Mostly overridden by the bright sunshine that happens less than a day later, but I do remember those times where I got stuck in a snow bank and waiting for rescue. 

Of course in Denver, if we get stuck we call a 4 wheel drive vehicle–a truck or a SUV–to come pull us out.  Increased traction and better torque, whalla, you are sweaty and covered in snow, but your front wheel drive car is now back on the road.  


Here in McMurdo we have a similar arrangement, but it’s at a different level.  We start in a 4 wheel vehicle and not just an all wheel drive thing with snow tires.  That’d be a vehicle Fleet Operations (Fleetops) would tell the Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF) not to check out.  No, we start in a lifted van with double wide tires that is generally driven in 4wd High.  It has 4wd Low, the fluids are low temperature rated including the fuel, they are check for Preventive Maintenance (PM’ed in the vernacular) very regularly, and are the staple of our transport fleet.  

Case Quad Track after a walk in McMurdo's park.

What we call for a tow is a CAT Challenger or a Case Quad Track.  Think tracked farm vehicle… as that’s actually what they are.  Of course they are somewhat modified but mostly it’s just different low temp fluids and heaters for the oil and battery.  Again, increased traction, torque, and in the case of Winter, much better lighting, plus often a GPS.

 By Timothy Smith - Tas50 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Of course there’s a reason for the different level. What Denver mostly drives on is pavement.  Even on the worst day, you can generally get a grip on it if you move enough snow.  Unless of course there’s ice on it.  Which of course generally what we drive on to Pegasus, or rather a combination of compacted snow with patches of varying types of ice. They don’t call Pegasus the Blue Ice runway for no reason. Which incidentally they do actually land wheeled planes on the ice, of course they have thrust reversers or prop feathering in addition to brakes. The Ross Ice Shelf, which is the majority of what we are on driving to Pegasus, is a glacier that’s between 50 and 200 feet thick.  New accumulation yearly and what is blown here from other parts of the continent is what we generally drive on, make snow caves out of (for happy camper), and what Pegasus is covered by (which is compacted or removed). 

Condition 1, 2, 3 Definitions of McMurdo Weather

To give you reference, Condition 3 (think green for go) is Winds less than 48 knots, and Visibility greater than or equal to ¼ mile, and Wind chill temperature warmer than -75°F. Condition 2 (think yellow for yield) is Winds 48 to 55 knots sustained for one minute, or Visibility less than ¼ mile, but greater than or equal to 100 feet sustained for one minute, or Wind chill -75°F to -100°F sustained for one minute. Condition 1 (think red for STOP!) is Winds greater than 55 knots sustained for one minute, or Visibility less than 100 feet sustained for one minute, or Wind chill greater than -100°F sustained for one minute.

Now perhaps you can see that when it goes from Condition 2 (visibility) to Condition 1 (visibility & wind) in 10 seconds that it’s not just about being able to grip the road, but it’s also about dealing with a white out. I’ve dealt with a whiteout in Colorado a few times.  You slow down, look for the reflective markers on the side of the road or the stripe on the road, and either move along slowly (hoping you don’t get hit from behind) or pull off (hope you don’t get stuck and hope you don’t get sideswiped by a jerk in a 4wd). Similar here, but all we have are flags every 25 yards with a bit of reflectivity on them and there is no way to differentiate the road.  It’s white… and white.  You can feel the difference if you are on top of it, as fleetops drags the road to compact it and keep it more clear of snow.  However in low visibility if you see a flag you can get disoriented and wonder aloud “is that flag the inside or outside of the lane?” Add to this that you don’t really want to stop if you are at all close to getting stuck.  4 wheeler aficionados may know this, but momentum is your friend.  Run across a drift caused by a herbie on an area that was just dragged can still be dicey, better to stay moving and get through it slowly but consistently.  Just don’t burn the tranny out.

16 miles to Pegasus @ 20 mph (max) vs 25 to DIA

All of this is why next time you drive from DIA back home and get stuck in a snowstorm you can think about getting stuck in a herbie in Antarctica on your way home. It might be 25 miles to get back Downtown and take you 2-3 hours, but remember if you get stuck at Pegasus at mile marker 12 it can take 7 hours to get home.  Even if you have a Magic Carpet…


Living on the Ice: A Different Life. Part 1

by wonderfullyrich on May 12, 2013

This is my 3rd season in McMurdo, two Summers, and now a Winter.  In many ways I’m still a neophyte as compared to some of the 15+ year veterans and some things are still new to me.  For most of my readers, you’ve never been to the Ice, so I want to elucidate on some of the very different things that happen when you contract to work in Antarctica.  Obviously my perspective is entirely McMurdo based, I am however to understand many thing are universal when you work for the US stations.

Food, water, shelter, these are the very basics for what people need.  Human are extremely adaptable, but we are also emotional beings and change in these tends to charge some emotions.  The hostile environment makes these necessities require more redundancy as well as tends to restrict life.  In this respect we are fundamentally more attuned to what options we have.  

Now there’s lots of irony in this.  Working on the Ice we are given, food, water, and shelter.  It’s not something we have to pay for, indeed it’s assumed in addition to our contracted wages.  So on the one hand, we don’t have to pay for it.  On the other hand we don’t have anything like the normal control over our food, water, and shelter that we would have when we are at home.  In that way we’ve bargain that control, for our wage, the chance to visit this place, the companion of similar people, etc. 

I’m not sure how this conveys to most of you living back in the US or in a mostly free and open society.  This topic is one of the conversations that any group of ice people will have, which would likely baffle non-ice people.  When I’ve tried to explain how ice people can get aggravated over things like dorm inspections to non-ice people, it seems like we are a bunch of whiners.  We are being given room and board for free, and the government wants the right to inspect it for fire safety, utility issues, and any gross violations.  It seems like it’s fair, and rationally I agree that it is.  

We don’t have a choice about it though, our expectations of privacy down here are much more abstract than they are on US soil.  The psychological impact of that ambiguity and inconsistency is what I think aggravates people, and also gives them freedom.  The policies and enforcement change seasonally depending primarily on what Station and NSF managers are deployed, but also what politics are going on inside the USAP headquarters, NSF Office of Polar Programs, and other factors. 

So we are not really whiners, at least no more than George Washington was about King George IV.  I say that with purpose too.  I’m not saying that we are unfairly tax (although that’s another discussion), but rather that living in Antarctica as a contractor to the US Governement we are not actually on United States soil.  So we don’t live by the same laws that we live by in the US. We live by a mix of rules and policies that are abstract and not always codified in much the same way colonies of Britain lived in the 1700s.  I don’t mean to imply people are thinking revolution, but rather that it’s a frame of reference some of you may more readily identify with.  

As I can I’ll flesh out more on the topic of what things are so different here on the Ice, beyond the obvious environmental differences.


A Celestial Week

by wonderfullyrich on April 26, 2013

This week has been all about the sun, the moon, and the stars, well after the unexpected plane that landed here on Monday.  It's been exhausting, but amazingly fun.  Some of you may have read my previous post on the mechanics of final sunset, which was an interesting research project.  Following that post I went out and saw it the next day, taking timelapses of the set, the drive, and other silliness.  It was bloody cold, and I broke the lens on the SLR I'm using.  Inspite of that it was amazing.  I got pictures like what you see below.

Final Glimmer of Sunset

I also got this amazing timelapse of the sun rising and setting.  This is an interesting illusion as well.  Although the clouds obscure it quite a bit, you can definately see what is a sunset in this. This sunset is actually about an hour after what offical sunset happened. Conjecture is that we saw a reflection, either off the ice to the clouds, but it's extremely vivid and quite impressive.  I probably won't forget that for a while, as much because my toes won't let me as anything. (I'm kidding, I have all 10 toes and fingers, as well as a shiny red nose). 

This is the youtube for the embeded timelapse below. 

Two days after the final sunset, April 25th at 6am NZDT we had a penumbral lunar eclipse.  I was a bit confused about, as the International date line tends to screw me up, but I did manage to get up early and go view the dimming of the moon.  I also got this timelapse below and I'll quote what I wrote on the youtube notes below.

This is actually a timelapse of the penumbral lunar eclipse that happened on April 25th 2013, however as it's with a Hero 3 it's not really visible. This is an awesome timelapse though, you can see how the moon rather then tracking in an arch like we think of it normally, it's tracking across the earth. Remember the Hero 3 has a 120 degree field of vision, but this couldn't even keep it in view after 11900 pictures and almost 7 hours starting at about 5:30am. It didn't set until almost 4pm in the afternoon (at least). Remember this is after the final winter sunset so although twilight comes up, and it's pointed in generally the right direction, we didn't see the sun all day.

And then I finally managed to get the telescope I found to work with the camera that I sort of broke.  It was just the lens though and not the body thankfully. But I got this other awesome photo on my second try.  I hope to get more as I get better with it and can tune it in better.  Maybe I can even get some star tracks which would be a nice consolation prize. To bad I didn't it figured out before the eclipse, next time though.

McMurdo Moon

All in all, I'm absolutely I amazed I got any real work done this week.  Another week in paradise as we say, and boy did it fly!


Final Sunset… What the world’s ending?

by wonderfullyrich on April 23, 2013

Nope, but Antarctican's won’t see it again for several months, so like a friend who gets lost in the wandering, we tend to forget about them.  Although the sun is a big friend and it’s hard to miss our friend’s effects… so maybe that’s a fib.

Unlike many who’ve been writing and showing sunset here in Antarctica, I thought I’d talk and show the mechanism involved.  Future posts may also have photos showing the beautiful and quick sunset.  It rises tomorrow April 23 2013 at 12:16 PM and sets at 1:27 PM. 

Why though do we get months without sun south of the Antarctic Circle?  It is a question many of you probably know the answer to, but only abstractly.  We all know the earth is tilted and I think most people know that it relates to seasons, which also is the reason we get long periods of darkness in the polar regions.  How exactly they are related is what I believe many get confused on, so in an effort to make it more concrete and show why we only get an hour fifteen minutes of sunlight tomorrow I’ll describe it.

Being tilted at 23.5 degrees changes how directly overhead the Sun a little bit every day, this is called the angle of incidence.  The equinox days are the points where the sun is directly overhead above the Equator, meaning it is at 90 degree angle of incidence across the middle of the earth.  Similarly solstice days are the points where the sun is at it’s most indirect overhead above the Equator or 66.5 degrees. (90 – 23.5 = 66.5) It’s also the point where the sun will be the most direct and indirect point overhead along the Lines of the Tropics.  For example on June 21th the sun will be at 90 degrees over the Northern Hemisphere Tropic of Cancer, 66.5 degrees over the Equator, and 44.5 degrees over the Southern Hemisphere Tropic of Capricorn. I didn’t make a visual of this, but a youtube video exists here if this requires more explanation.

The Earth has two more circles of note, and also relate to the sun.  You probably can see where this is going by now.  The Arctic and Antarctic circle are the lines where the the sun will–at least for one 24 hour period per year–remain overhead and similarly be missing overhead.  The following is a good chart representation of this as stitched together by Jared Knox last summer. The further south you go the longer the period of darkness, above the Antarctic circle (say in Palmer and Christchurch) it will never actually go away.

This chart lacks geography, so the animated graphic to the right is a visual from space I built with the help of Google Earth and ImageMagick.  It shows the progression at noon Auckland time (same as McMurdo and South Pole) twice a month for the entire year.  In this way you can visualize the changing angle of incidence better.  Note that this is not a sunset and sunrise although it looks sort of like it, this is actually driven by the tilt of the earth and so its progression is slow and easiest to visualize when sped up.  Click on it for a larger slower version.

Indeed the following visual show you even more clearly what’s going on. As you watch this video I’ve spliced together from Celestia and Google Earth, you can see the angle increasing slowly on the left.  This view is as if you are in a parallel orbit with the earth directly below it looking up, as compared to the right which is a stationary view of Antarctica orbiting with earth on the right.  Look again at the chart above before you watch this video, and take a look at how the darkness on the right slowly increases and then looks as if it’s a spinning top about to fall over. 

A few notes about this video, the sync is just a little off I believe, but Celestia doesn’t have a proper satellite image of Antarctica so it’s hard to match up visually.  If it’s not possible to read the dates, they start on January 1st and end on June 24th, i.e. the middle of austral summer to the middle of austral winter.

I hope you’ve learned something about the beautiful final sunsets all my Antarctican friends will be posting in the near future. 


Writing about the 5 W’s of My Writing

by wonderfullyrich on April 22, 2013

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, although the latter is generally tacked on. I’m the “Who,” and hopefully an older and wiser “Who” then when I started this this written journey.  Having started to write again for my blog, and being more self-aware of time, feelings, motivation, and having the perspective of time, I turned my lens of introspection on to my blog writing.

I want to answer “What” I’m writing as the pieces those which I enjoy the most, particularly those useful articulated descriptive pieces about what is.  Truth or reality as I can describe it, or those posts similar to my last post.  Almost as if I’m writing like the NPR of old, an in depth piece that will make you sit in your driveway while you listen to it.  What’s amazing about this is that as much as I enjoy writing like this, it’s sometimes painful as it is detail work.  It’s basically real journalism.  I like to write the topic, get photos for it–which used to have to be my own, and now I’m okay with creative commons shares–then verify my facts, check sources if I have them (down here that means informal interviews), and if it’s a big enough topic I footnote things as I can.  It should come as no surprise that although the research pieces are a labor of love, many get lost in the process.  I get caught up in my non-digital life, the topic is no longer topical, the writing itself sucks, the research is to detailed/can’t be verified/or is just not going to get finished, etc, etc.   I’m sure I have many old pieces, maybe some are salvageable if I get bored this winter.  This is what I see as the “How,” or an overview of the hours of the “How.”

Of course the “What” and “How” are also blog like this one I’m writing today which doesn’t involve research and is me conveying my process which doesn’t have to be authoritative, it’s dramatically different.  I just have to do my best at wordsmithing, copy-editing, and of course writing. (Not all of which are the best as you may have figured out.) In the past I haven’t self-identified with these as much though.  Writing these in the past felt like cheating, as I didn’t have to put half the work in.  Now I think it’s somewhat cathartic and useful for my readers, most of you have met me and enjoy keeping up on my whole being as much as you enjoy learning about the strange and wonderful vehicles on station.  Not to mention I now more fully understand it’s useful to be engaged in my lower brain as much as my upper brain.

Toward that end, the “When” I write is now also dictated by self-care. I’m not sacrificing enjoyment, self-time, and attempt at being in the moment whilst in Antarctica, or my work for my writing. As it is time seems to get away from me and the weeks fly by, it’s a bit baffling really. I continuously struggle to remember it’s okay to not accomplishing anything and doing nothing once an awhile.  But I do enjoy the act of writing, and as I said, it is a labor of love.  I do it for me as it’s like a sudoku or crossword puzzle.

McMurdo of course is the "Where" as well as a good part of the "Why."  Being this far south again, working and enjoying the renewed friendship, working on such a remote & unique place, and finding a need to find that articulated center of my self, it’s fulfilling to write again.  Of course it’s also the Ice folk that reminded me of how much fun it is to write again.  Reading other peoples Facebook posts, blogs, talking to people about there many stories, and catching up on the non-real world–as opposed to the real world populated world–incites a kind of will to re-engage with the writer in me, at least while I’m down here.