Monthly Archives: October 2012

Byrd Surface Camp 2012-13

Our sticker/logo/image for this year – courtesy of August Allen (PIG camp)

80deg 0.9min S, 119deg 33.5W

West Antarctica is notorious for its weather. So not surprisingly we’re delayed in McMurdo. The number of aircraft here in Antarctica are at a minimum, so any delays wreck havoc on the flight schedule. Our first Basler and Herc were ideally supposed to put camp in on Monday, but weather moved in around Byrd and Siple which cancelled those flights. A flight to Casey Station in East Antarctica has cancelled due to weather, stranding a group of Australians hoping to make it to their base. The weather here in McMurdo has been lovely, sunny and relatively calm, but it’s either foggy, or too cold, or too low visibility for the planes to land at any of their destinations. Often they’ve taken off and had to return, or “boomerang”, after flying several hours. It’s not easy, but as we often say for anything that isn’t just right – “it’s a harsh continent!”

For the past two weeks we’ve been working and training in McMurdo, collecting and packing gear, packing food, checking our equipment, and going over flight schedules, cargo weight limits, and emergency plans. Now that we’re delayed we’re free to either tie up any loose ends in town, or help out with other departments. I’ve been working with Waste in preparation for winter and with the South Pole Traverse team.
We won’t have internet or email once we get into the field, so I thought I’d write a bit about “Byrd Surface Camp,” what I’ll be doing this summer, field camps and research projects in West Antarctica at large, more about the research and set-up of Byrd this season, and give you lots of pictures and links…I will continue this blog once I get back to a place with internet so save your questions or post them below!

Byrd camp is one of the oldest Antarctic field camps. Named after Admiral Richard E. Byrd and set in the heart of Marie Byrd Land of West Antarctica, it was first established by the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1956-57 as a year-round underground station. In 1972 it was changed to a summer-only field camp, but aside from a gap between 2005-09 it has been in near continuous use.

The photo below shows the tractor traverse on December 4, 1956 heading out to establish the first Byrd Station.
Photo: Jim Waldron/Antarctic Photo Library

An October 14, 2012 satellite image of the Byrd winter berm shows heavy drifting. At the end of the summer everything is closed up and placed on the berm. The square “Galley Module”, heavy equipment, boxes of extra food, drums of fuel, two snowmobiles, the tents we will sleep in are all there. On the lower left there are 4 squares in a line a little ways from the berm – these are the fuel pits, four 10,000 gallon bladders of fuel. The large item near the middle and just to the left of the berm is the sled used to load and unload the largest and most awkward cargo. There’s no denying that there is a lot of digging ahead of all of us, but it’s promising that some individual structures are still visible and are even casting shadows!

The Byrd winter berm on which everything is stored.

This season I will be working as the heavy equipment operator, one of three women staffing the camp. My primary job will be using the 2010 Tucker Sno-cat to groom the skiway and camp, though we will also have a CAT 931 tracked loader to move snow and cargo. We won’t have too much cargo going through camp, but every flight will likely be bringing fuel and with such a small camp staff we will all be busy.
Over the years, Byrd’s population has fluctuated between 3 and 50. The projects and goals have also changed dramatically. Our primary purpose this season is to support the Pine Island Glacier (aka P.I.G.) Traverse, a “mini traverse” to WAIS, and the aerial survey project GIMBLE in January.

There have been a number of camps and traverses in West Antarctica since the 50’s, but today the region is of particular interest for those studying climate change. Computer models indicate West Antarctica as becoming increasingly unstable if the current warming trends continue as expected. The break up of the Larson ice shelves, alarming amounts of melt, and dramatically increasing acceleration of glaciers have prompted a number of studies over the past few years. If the entire West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse it could potentially raise sea levels by 6-7 meters. Countries around the world have been supporting various research groups to better understand the systems involved and improve climate models to predict sea level rise. This year, USAP is supporting five main “deep field” camps in West Antarctica: Siple, Pine Island Glacier (PIG), West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS), WISSARD, and Byrd.

Map of West Antarctic Field Camps – Some of the main deep field sites are shown here, along with the PIG and South Pole traverses. WISSARD is not shown, but sits just above the H point.

Siple, or Siple Dome, is the smallest of the five with only 2 people. It has a long and interesting history and was a site of an ice core in the late 90’s, but today only a few small tent structures, a skiway, and a fuel cache is all that remains. It is in essence, a glorified gas station and a backup for planes flying the capricious weather of West Antarctica. Note: there was an old station called Siple Station which was fairly expansive, but this was on the other side of West Antarctica, near the base of the Penninsula  and the Ronne ice shelf.
The Pine Island Glacier project is comprised of two components: PIG camp itself and the PIG Traverse. PIG camp is located 1,300 miles from McMurdo, near the coast of the Amundsen Sea. The traverse will haul fuel from Byrd to WAIS, and on to PIG. Surprisingly, this is the more cost effective option than flying it in via Herc. The project, lead by Robert Bindschadler of NASA, is hoping to deploy instruments below the ice to measure various parameters of the seawater under the glacier tongue and the dynamics of where the glacier transitions from bedrock to seawater. Their hypothesis is that warming ocean currents are melting the ice from beneath, increasing the velocity up the length of the glacier. Helicopters will transport researchers and equipment to various points along the glacier to drill and deploy instruments. Recently, they’ve discovered a major rift in the glacier. “What makes this one remarkable is that it will lead to calving of a significantly larger iceberg than PIG has produced in the last few decades,” says Joseph MacGregor, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It is likely that the front of PIG will be farther back than any time in the recent past after the iceberg calves.” The satellite images can be found here.

There is more information on the NASA project website: http://pigiceshelf.nasa.gov/
And the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Island_Glacier

A satellite image of the Pine Island Glacier with notable signs of disintegration

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide, or WAIS, has been in progress since the 2005-06 season and has been in the process of extracting the most recent ice core in West Antarctica. On December 31, 2011 they reached their goal depth of 3,405m, making it the longest U.S. ice core yet. While they have finished drilling there is still a lot of research to be done with the borehole and the project will continue through this season. More information on the research going on at this camp can be found on their website: http://www.waisdivide.unh.edu

WISSARD, or Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, (http://www.wissard.org) is a fascinating new project. Over the past two summers they have conducted surveys using ground-penetrating radar and have found a subglacial lake of interest. This year they will begin drilling – hoping to deploy a suite of instruments into the borehole and isolated lake beneath. Here is a short animation they put together for PR of the route from the U.S. to the Whillans ice stream.
The group has also posted an interesting and informative video on YouTube (“Researchers prepare to drill through Antarctic ice”) explaining the main goals of the project and the “clean drilling” technology used.

This season Byrd Camp will be supporting the science group GIMBLE/ICECAP. This is a collaboration between the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC), the Australian Antarctic Division, Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales (LEGOS), the universities of Edinburgh, Exeter, and Texas at Austin. ICECAP (or “Investigating the Cryospheric Evolution of the Central Antarctic Plate”) is interested in using ground penetrating radar, geomagnetic data, and lidar to measure the top and bottom surfaces of the ice – essentially mapping the bedrock of Antarctica beneath the ice, and hoping to gain insight to the evolution of the Antarctic ice sheet. This is important for constraining ice flow and climate models, and for knowing more precisely the volume of water locked up in the polar ice caps that could potentially melt, causing sea level rise.
The following website gives a good explanation of one of the affiliated projects, BEDMAP-2, which measured subglacial topography in Eastern Antarctica:
http://www.antarctica.gov.au/science/cool-science/2011/bedrock-map-reveals-ice-free-antarctica

This group has done quite a lot of work in East Antarctica already, around Australian Casey Station and Russian Vostok. Check out this 2010 Science article for more information: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5986/1630.full
They will be doing much of the same measurements in West Antarctica, based out of Byrd.

A rough map of the Antarctic bedrock – blue areas are under the current sea level. Note the extremely high Transantarctic mountains. There is also a little muontainous region within Marie Byrd Land. – BEDMAP Consortium/BAS

Comparatively, Byrd will be a quiet, cozy, little camp. Last year there was quite a large camp set up at Byrd, with nearly 40 people. This year we will have close to 20 for put-in and take-out, but there will only be 3 of staying for the entire summer: Abby the Camp Manager, Tara the Field Coordinator, and myself, the Heavy Equipment Operator. We will be the only all-female staffed field camp this year, and potentially the first ever all-women deep field camp in Antarctica. (If anyone knows of others outside of the Dry Valleys, let me know!)

A photo of Myself, Abby, and Tara at Hut Point near McMurdo. We’ve been called the Byrds, Lady Byrds, Skittles (for the bright purple, green, and blue jackets), Charlie’s Angels…

Byrd sits at an elevation of 1,553m (~5,000ft) Byrd is located 1,400km (~870mi) from McMurdo and 1,120km (~700mi) from the South Pole. We won’t have email or internet access, but we will have two HF radios, two IRIDIUM satellite phones, and VHF radios for on-site comms. We will check in with McMurdo daily and I’ve been told the BBC still broadcasts news on HF. Flat mail will be delivered on the 12 or so Hercs scheduled throughout the season. While some folks might balk at the idea of leaving the grasps of modern media, I find I’m really looking forward to the break.
Our work will be to maintain the camp, supporting the PIG Traverse, flight ops, the research group, and fighting the never-ending battle against being buried under drifts.

The rough outline of the season is as follows: Put-in will take place during the first week of November, in late November the PIG Traverse departs for PIG camp, leaving a heavy mechanic and a second operator behind, in early December those two will launch a “mini traverse” to haul fuel the 100mi to WAIS Divide. In late December a carp crew will come in to set up some more tents, and then in early January the GIMBLE group with their Basler and crew will arrive.

I won’t be able to post anything until I return to McMurdo at the end of the austral summer, but I will be sure to take lots of photos. In the meantime, here are some cool links about Byrd now and then. Byrdcamp.com is an awesome, interactive website created a few years ago when the population was large enough to warrant cooks, GAs, medics, and many others. We won’t have half as many people, nor will we have as many tents set-up, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The Antarctic Sun published a couple short articles in 2009 that are also worth taking a look at – Byrd History and Byrd Camp Resurfaces

Have a wonderful Thanks Giving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

The flat white – several hundred miles from any visible rocks, Byrd is just as much on the Flat White as Pole.

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McMurdo Station! Aka: Mac Town, MCM, or just Town

77deg 51min S, 166deg 40min E

McMurdo Station, Antarctica

McMurdo is the hub for all US Antarctic operations aside from Palmer station. It sits on the end of a long peninsula on the southern end of Ross Island. Two mountains, the active volcano Mt. Erebus and a smaller mountain Mt. Terror, dominate the rest of Ross Island.

The gritty town, first established in 1955, is a quirky mix of scientific research station, military outpost, mining town, and college dorm. (Note: as per the Antarctic Treaty there is no mining on the continent and military operations are peaceful and unarmed) McMurdo supports a population from 150 in the winter to over 1000 in the summer. Most everything needed and used here is flown down from New Zealand via the C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemasters. There is also a cargo ship that usually arrives in February. Power is generated both by wind turbines and diesel generators. Fresh water is created via reverse osmosis, and wastewater is fully treated on site.
The buildings are scattered across a rocky hill bordered to the north by a fairly steep incline and to the South by the wide expanse of the frozen Ross Sea. Along the Southern horizon the massive Transantarctic Mountains sit majestically. There are 10 stop signs in town along roads of either crushed volcanic rock or compacted snow/ice covered with crushed rock for traction. The station has evolved over the years, buildings being renovated and built as needed. Nothing is level. Nothing is straight. It’s industrial and artsy.
Lifted F-350 trucks and 12 passenger vans with huge tires share the road with heavy equipment and snowmobiles (until the snow melts). Thick insulated utility pipes run above ground with bridges for pedestrians built over them in places. Slippery doorknobs placed close to the frame are impossible to use with huge mittens on, and as it’s unadvisable to touch cold metal with bare hands, most doors here have been fitted with a pipe lever, with a plastic handle. It’s not unusual to find windows bordered with Velcro – with an opaque piece of fabric to block out the midnight sun. Buckets of sand are placed by nearly every door to throw on icy steps. I’ve grown used to it, but there are dozens of little things like this that make life just a little different from home. McMurdo is a petri dish of all sorts of bugs coming from all around the world. Everyone has to PQ, but the “crud” is a force to reckon with. A giant “hand-washing station” is set up just outside the galley.

A bridge provides access over utility lines

A fancy USAPed door handle

The “handwashing station” next to the main entrance of 155 and the galley.

They’ve issued little pocket maps this year, which have proved helpful for those of us who haven’t spent more than a few days in town. Each building has a number and an official name, but many others are simply referred to by their nicknames. Skua Central, building 155, Hut Ten, VMF, MacOps, The BFC…The Carp Shop is where the Carps, or carpenters, work. The VMF (Vehicle Maintenance Facility), or Heavy Shop, is where vehicles and equipment are repaired.
There are a ridiculous number of acronyms used in daily speech, and still more ice slang thrown around: fuelies, wasties, carps, HEOs, milvans, skua-ing, Con-1, Baja, boondoggle….I forget how much is new and strange to FNG’s, or those here for the first time.

Few animals are visible yet, but a rich ecosystem thrives beneath the sea ice. Weddell seals are starting to appear along cracks in the sea ice. Later, at the height of the Antarctic summer, penguins will show up out near the runways to molt. Leopard seals aside, there really isn’t much other than the cold to worry about down here. Polar bears live solely in the Arctic…the only place they’ll encounter a penguin is in a zoo. Inland there are no sources of food or water, so it’s only the most rare and unfortunate bird that is sighted at the South Pole.

I’ll be “in town” through the end of the month for trainings and to help prepare for the field. This is an intense process and the three of us “Byrds” will be busy for the full two weeks scheduled in McMurdo. We have to collect our weather instruments, comms equipment, medical supplies, order food and pack it, weigh, measure and TCN all pieces of cargo heading to camp, undergo various trainings and meetings, study inventory lists from previous years to make sure we have enough office supplies, shovels, toilet paper, replacement parts for equipment and gear, pack our sleep kits and emergency supplies… We will have HF radio and iridium satellite phones, but no internet access. We will have a few large heated tent structures, but will sleep in unheated Arctic Oven tents. We will have a lot of canned and frozen food, but very few “freshies” such as fruits, vegetables, and eggs.

Everyone heading out to field camps or the South Pole travels through McMurdo and I’ve spent each meal catching up with friends from last year and the year before. The weather has been good this past week – more or less clear and calm. The wind bites, but at 5-10F it’s balmy compared to Pole. I find Big Red and my blue boots to be too warm for work. The sun is strong and bright, during the day and still sets for about an hour at night.
For more information about current conditions the main McMurdo website (http://www.mcmurdo.usap.gov/) is a great resource.

I may always be a Polie at heart, but it’s a good change to be heading to the field this year.

Some dorms at the base of Ob (short for Observation) Hill

One of the newest pieces of equipment here in McMurdo – the Kress. Pallets of cargo can be loaded on the rear bed, or a large cab for passengers.

rocks and snow

One of my last sunsets…tonight the sun will set for about an hour.

Some interesting facts from the intranet here:
• During Robert F. Scott’s expeditions of 1901 to 1903 and 1910 to 1913, he used sled dogs (23 Samoyeds) and Siberian ponies to haul supplies. Expeditions and Antarctic bases continued to use dogs up until as late as the 1980s. It is now against the Antarctic Treaty to bring non-indigenous species to Antarctica.

• Sea ice up to three meters (10 feet) thick forms outward from the continent every austral winter, creating a belt 500 to 1,500 kilometers (311 to 932 miles) wide. During the summer season, an ice-breaking ship helps to disperse the ice near McMurdo to open water.

• Erebus is the world’s southernmost active volcano and one of only a handful with active convecting lava lakes. Although it is not a major threat to McMurdo Station it offers a unique opportunity to study eruptive process from lava lakes and is monitored year round.

• In 1979, Mount Erebus, 3,794 meters (12,448 feet) in height, was the site of a plane crash that claimed 257 lives on a sightseeing and photographic flight over Antarctica.

• The Royal Society Range is a volcanic range that is part of the Transantarctic Mountains, one of the world’s longest mountain chains (Antarctic Connection), and is located on McMurdo Sound’s southwestern shore.

• Large numbers of meteorites, including specimens that have been identified as coming from Earth’s Moon and Mars, have been recovered in Antarctica, and it has been determined that meteorites striking this vast continent are better preserved than anywhere else in the world because of their burial in the ice.

• One of the world’s most extreme deserts resides just west of McMurdo Sound within Victoria Land, called the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The Dry Valleys have extremely low humidity and lack snow or ice cover, and in fact, at 4,800 square kilometers (1,875 square miles), form the largest relatively ice-free region in Antarctica.

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The ICE

At 3am on the morning of our “ice flight” we met at the CDC. After donning our ECW and doing a little repacking we were bussed across the road to the airport to meet the C-17. It was still dark and eerily illuminated by flashing orange lights. We were issued our sack lunch and took our seats inside.

The C-17 Globemaster is one of the largest planes to fly down to Antarctica with an overall length of 174ft and a wingspan of ~170ft. They can carry up to 18 pallets, or over 170,000 pounds of cargo. For the flights to Antarctica they often do a mix load of pax and cargo pallets. As we stepped on board they handed us earplugs and I picked a seat against the wall, snuggling into my Big Red that we are required to bring. On flights with a lot of pax two cargo pallets retro-fitted with commercial airline seats are loaded on board, but I prefer the seats along the wall.
It’s loud and bright inside, with only a few small portholes. Ducts and bundles of wire trace the ceiling and walls of the cargo hold. We settled in and soon enough were in the air. As I said, it’s loud. Leaning close you still have to shout, so everyone either fell asleep or pulled out their books and laptops. I took the opportunity to catch up on much needed sleep, feeling jet lagged again after the 230am shuttle pick up.

72 pax and several pallets of cargo

The C-17 flight deck

Just over an hour from McMurdo I went up to the cockpit to take some pictures. By now we had come in sight of the southernmost continent. Smooth white sea ice blanketed the ocean, showing the dark waters beneath through cracks here and there. Huge icebergs sat locked in place.
As we moved over the continent itself rocky mountains peeked above the snow covered glaciers. Scattered clouds cast their shadows across the milk white silky ice. These are my favorite images of Antarctica. Huge crevasse fields and ice falls, untouched ice streams, beautiful ripples formed as the fluid ice deflects around mountains of rock…Some of the glaciers are tens of miles across and hundreds of miles long. There is no scale, no sign of life. It’s desolate, and awe inspiring.

A picture of the cracking sea ice that I took on my way down a year ago

Another photo from the flight last year showing the transition from grounded glaciers to floating sea ice with trapped icebergs.

After 5 hours of flying we touch down on the ice. There are two runways here in McMurdo – the sea ice runway and “Pegasus” on the ice shelf. The sea ice runway is close to town, and is usually used until Nov/December, but this year the ice is thin, too thin already to land C-17s. Pegasus is on the ice shelf that stays frozen year-round, so there it’s solid, but over an hour from station on Ivan and the new Kress machines. The ice is groomed and grooved and works more or less like a paved runway elsewhere. While only ski-equipped planes can land at Pole or in the field, the wheeled C-17s have no problem.
Over the intercom the pilot announces: “Welcome to Antarctica!” And everyone comes alive pulling on hats, sunglasses, Big Reds, and gloves. The door opens and the light comes in. As I step out I can’t help grinning. The cold isn’t as harsh as I remember, I don’t zip my coat or put on my neck gaiter, but I can feel it sharp on my nose and cheeks. After a few minutes I notice a dull ache in my teeth from the cold. I try to stop smiling so much, but then see a friend from last year waiting to greet us. He envelopes me in a massive bear hug and I find myself grinning again. It is good to be back.

Welcome to Antarctica!

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Christchurch/Cheech/CHC/Chch…New Zealand

The bag tags issued for our checked luggage. The airlines have been notified to send any found luggage with this tag onward to Christchurch, NZ where it will either meet up with it’s owner or be passed on down to the ice if they’ve already deployed.

After over 20 hours of flying we finally arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand. There were a good 15 or 20 “ice people” on my flight and representatives of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) were there to meet us at the airport. The weather was cool, grey, and raining and we quickly piled in shuttles that whisked us away to our hotels. Despite having slept quite a bit on the 14hr flight from San Francisco to Sydney I was exhausted and slept most of the night. The shuttles picked us up at 9 in the morning and we were off to the CDC or Clothing Distribution Center.

The Clothing Distribution Center – not to be confused with the Center for Disease Control.

The CDC is located near the airport in a complex that is the hub for most USAP activity. Palmer station on the Antarctic Peninsula is the primary exception; their operations and logistics based out of Punta Arenas, Chile. After a short video covering the fragility of the Antarctic environment and the risk of “packing a pest” we were issued our two orange bags of Extreme Cold Weather gear, affectionately referred to as simply ECW. Really, there are a ridiculous number of acronyms…I’ll refer you to the tab labelled “Acronyms” at the top of this page.

The rest of the morning was spent trying on all the pieces of issued ECW and making sure everything is accounted for, fits, and works properly. This is the one chance to exchange anything. McMurdo and Pole have small caches of replacement pieces of ECW, but it’s best to go down with the right stuff. Make sure the boots fit with your socks, double check zippers, jump around, make sure things are loose enough to work in and to wear with layers, but not too lose that they will catch on things…Try on EVERYTHING. It might not be the very best or the most expensive gear, and often has seen a season or two of use, but honestly if you were to lose all your luggage, you’d be alright with the gear they issue. Many people, myself included, bring their own base layers: nice long underwear, liner gloves, a special hat, sunglasses, and a fleece jacket or thin down coat. It’s also “normal” room temperature inside the buildings, so having some regular street clothes is a good idea. The big-ticket items are the iconic “Big Red”, “Bunny Boots” or now FDX boots, and the Carhartt overalls.
Big Red is a monstrous bright red down coat that engulfs me even with a small. It’s warm, too warm for summer, and hangs almost to my knees making it impractical for any physical work. Nonetheless it’s required and will be good during winter!

Blue Boots or FDX boots versus the white rubber “Bunny Boots”

Bunny Boots are thick rubber boots that are warm, but breathe less than plastic trash bags…if your feet sweat you’ll risk trench foot. The alternative is the FDX or “Blue boots” – these have a thick platform-like sole, which takes a bit of getting used to, but the leather and cloth breathe.

Everyone is also issued thick insulated Carhartt overalls and jacket. Big Red has our nametag velcroed to the front, the only distinguishing feature – covered from head to toe with balaclava, goggles, and gloves everyone looks about the same. This is my 3rd time deploying to Antarctica and still I get excited seeing my name on the front – it’s really happening!

Wall mounted examples of the ECW issued to each deploying pax.

What I’m bringing to the ice – the orange bags are ECW. South Pole winterovers get an additional bag to be stored away from the station in case of emergency.

The rest of the day was spent in orientation and safety training. After dinner I walked down along Hagley Park. It was quickly growing dark as I walked along the edge of the botanic gardens passing through swarms of little insects and active singing birds catching their dinner, along the stream that winds through Christchurch. It’s spring here in the southern hemisphere and little white and yellow daffodils grew between the reeds and grass. Rhododendrons in pink, white, yellow, and red clouds peer over fences and along side the roads. Everything shimmers with the vibrantly alive green of new growth. I might get a week of R&R in NZ before winter, but there’s a chance that I could just get a week off in McMurdo. Tonight could potentially be the last time I see trees, grass, streams, rain, hear song birds, and see children…for over a year. I didn’t wander too long though; the shuttles are picking us up at 230am for the early morning C-17 flight to McMurdo.

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Deploying

BLI-SEA-SFO-SYD-CHC! Over 20 hours of flying.
We’ll have a day for training and final prep in Christchurch, NZ and then it’s another 5-6hr flight to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Things get a little confusing with flying over the international date line. On my way westward I will leave the US on the 11th and arrive in Australia on the 13th, even though it’s only a 14hr flight. On the way home it’s not unusual to arrive before you’ve departed…

Meanwhile, here are some spectacular photos from the Antarctic:
http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/10/scenes-from-antarctica/100384/

The tags issued for checked luggage. The airlines are given notice to send all lost bags with these tags to Christchurch, NZ.

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Fire School!

For the past two weeks I have been in Denver, Colorado participating in training for prospective South Pole winterovers. During the first week we took the psychological exam, discussed critical stress management, and completed a 3-day customized emergency wilderness medicine and CPR course. During the summer at the South Pole it can take a full day at best to reach advanced medical care, and during the winter we will be more or less on our own for a solid 7-8 months.

The second week of training was devoted to fire fighting. In the summer, a small crew of professional fire fighters is stationed at the South Pole to manage emergencies with the aircraft operations, but during the winter there are no flights so all emergencies must be handled by the Emergency Response Teams (ERTs). All of the ~45 winterovers are assigned to one of the four teams: 1.”Hasty”, 2.Fire, 3.Logistics, and 4.Trauma.

Though perhaps only 10 people will be assigned to the Fire team it is important for everyone on site to understand the basic theory and nature of fire and be somewhat familiar with the equipment. Fires are not common in the Antarctic, but they are a constant threat with the dry static-filled environment and light insulated building materials. As on a ship, fire can quickly destroy the limited resources available for our survival. At Pole we train and plan to deal with a multitude of scenarios. As a last resort, one entire wing of the station is constructed as an “emergency pod,” fully equipped to stand alone with generators, communications equipment, and other emergency supplies. A large fire wall and freezer door separate it from the rest of the station – in theory able to support winterovers in the event that the rest of the station is destroyed by fire.

One of the worst Antarctic fires in recent times was at a Brazilian station in February of this year. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-17168526 or http://news.discovery.com/earth/deadly-fire-incinerates-brazils-antarctic-base-120227.html)

In 1976 there were two fires at the South Pole construction camp. Thankfully no one was killed, but they did destroy a few buildings. Bill Spindler has put together a good description with lots of photos here: http://www.southpolestation.com/pole/welcome.html

Part of the training in Denver was a 5-day course at the Rocky Mountain Fire Academy. I expect to be on the Trauma/Medical team, but the fire training was amazing.

First off we learned how to don the cumbersome Bunker, or Turnout, gear and how to operate the full-face masks and positive pressure respirators. We started with drills like crawling through culvert pieces of decreasing diameter, and wooden boxes strung with wires meant to tangle and catch you. Then we practiced turning around and passing other fire fighters in full gear inside dark culvert pieces, barely 3ft in diameter. We crawled inside smoke filled buildings searching for “victims” and learned about the chemistry of fire and the various extinguisher types and methods. South Pole is slightly unique in that we really can’t use water to fight a fire – we just don’t have the necessary volume of liquid water available. Dry chem, some foam, and CO2 systems are the options.

Maneuvering in tight spaces

Practicing with a dry chem extinguisher

Searching for victims in a smoke filled house (hollywood fake smoke)

Never too many fire extinguishers

One method for dragging a victim from a building

One of the most exciting exercises involved the “Rib Shack”, a building designed and built as a fire training structure to allow the observation of fire development in a controlled setting. In full gear and on air, with several professional fire fighters keeping a close eye on us, they built a fire of wood pallets and straw in a large iron brazier. It was 80F outside and I could already feel the sweat running down my back inside the insulating bunker gear. It works great at keeping in and out. The thick pants, boots, and jacket feel surprisingly similar to the ECW I wear on the ice, perhaps why I felt so comfortable moving around in it. The full outfit is designed to protect from not only heat, but all sorts of hazards potentially encountered in the chaotic destruction of a fire. For example, steel plates in the soles of the boots to guard against stepping on nails.

The room filled slowly with smoke, curling across the ceiling and filling the space above our heads. Pale vapors wafted through the air beneath. The room we were in was made of concrete and brick – I hate to think of the fumes released from burning furniture and carpets. I could just barely feel the heat where my skin pressed close against my gear – on the outside of my shoulders, and the fronts of my quads (we were sitting on our heels, low to the ground. The fire grew quickly, crackling and popping. I took a deep breath, appreciating the seal of the mask and the clean cool air from the tank on my back. The air rushed in, filling my lungs with a Darth Vadar like sound. I exhaled silently. Around me I could hear the rushing breaths and the bleeping alarms when someone held still for a moment too long. The lead fire fighter instructed us to remove one glove and reach up. The air was thick with heat, increasing exponentially as I raised my bare fingers above my head. The bunker gear works remarkable well, insulating me from the growing heat and thickening smoke. Several times they had us stand up and see just how black it was with our heads in the smoke…a tangible undulating sea of smoke that looked almost like the surface of water. It pushed lower and lower and I looked around to see everyone ducking their heads instinctively. The noise of the fire, the rushing of air as we breathed in, the beeps and blips of the respirators filled my ears.  It felt like an hour, but may have been only 10 minutes.

At last they ushered us out, and we were told the ceiling had reached close to 900F, over 300F on the floor. They warned us that our helmets and gear were hot enough to burn, so we unhooked our respirators and chatted excitedly as we watched them vent the structure. We got to help put out the fire with a hose, posing for a photo or two in front of the blaze.

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PQ

On September 18th, after receiving offers for both the summer and winter Antarctic seasons I was told to “hold onto my hat as things were going to move FAST.” No truer words have been spoken. Less than a week later I landed in Denver, Colorado…and within two days had completed all the necessary appointments, paperwork, and exams to PQ for the winter at Pole.

For all of you who know what this means, it was as crazy as you can imagine. PQ stands for “Physically Qualify”, or passing the thorough medical evaluation required to deploy to Antarctica. The main stations (Palmer, McMurdo, and Pole) have small clinics with doctors and physician assistants, but their equipment and supplies are limited and it’s a long way to higher care. Medical evacuation can be a tricky business at best. In the summer months McMurdo is about a 3 hour flight from Pole, and from there it’s another 6 hour flight to Christchurch, New Zealand…And this is the best case scenario where a plane is waiting on the ground at Pole and the weather is fair at all locations. During the winter season there is a 7-8 month window where flights in and out of Pole are all but impossible.

The PQ process is a process for summer contracts, and even more involved for winter. Usually it’s a good idea to start the process 4-6 months before you deploy. With the last minute hiring I had under 3 weeks.

The first stop was at the doctors office where I had a full physical examination, blood drawn and urine collected for lab analysis and lipid tests (required to fast for 12hrs prior), a TB test, vision test, and immunization history fully reviewed. The second stop was the dentist where I had a dental exam, bitewing x-rays, and a cleaning. Between and after these appointments I kept hydrated and swung by two drug testing facilities for each of my contracts.

The next day I had a 645am appointment for the chest x-ray and gallbladder ultrasound. The x-ray was straight forward, but the ultrasound ended up being close to an hour spent laying on the table while the technician smeared warm goo across my full abdomen taking images of all my internal organs. Kind of interesting. Apparently the gallbladder shrinks to produce bile even to digest water, so no food or water is allowed for 8 hours prior to the exam – they need a good look at the full organ to check for gall stones.

Later that morning we took the Psych exam, a 2hr “scantron” test followed by a brief interview with a psychologist. Then it was a matter of completing the release forms, the 5-page medical history packet, and getting my TB test read 48-72hrs after administration.

Several tests are done every 5 years so I did not have to redo the 12 lead EKG and full dental panorama x-ray. After being poked, prodded, palpated, bled, screened, scraped, x-rayed, immunized, analyzed, and generally examined I was finally able to fax off my huge packet of paperwork and received word 10 days later that I was PQ’d for summer at least…

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Filed under Antarctic, Winter