South Pole Diaries 1995/96



South Pole Diary February 5th, 5am

From Michael Burton.....

Fog, that's the story of today! Its the worst I've ever seen here. Another weather change and the wind, instead of blowing down from Dome Argus, is now coming from the South (grid South!) - probably from Oz for all I know. Anyway its brought more moist, warm air with it and thick fog. It reached -20 at one point! Visibility is down to about 50m - and I certainly cant see the dome from the astronomy sector. Its bringing a frosting to everything too - being laden with moisture (or relatively so) water seems to be condensing out of the air onto every object it can find. I've had to make heavy use of a heat gun to clean away the snow and frost from anything I'm working on, otherwise all my connections would have become embedded in ice!

Indeed the weather was sufficiently poor that one plane aborted its journey having reached Pole and headed back to Mactown! I was skiing to work at about 8pm yesterday, a route which crosses the ice runway, barely able to see the next flag pole in front of me. Then I noticed the warning lights come on warning that a plane was approaching. After waiting around a bit I heard a dull roar, which got closer and closer until I thought something was going to land right on top of me! However the noise passed overhead, or at least I presume it did, because I never saw anything, even though the plane was probably no more than 50 m above my head. I could hear the plane turn around, and 10 minutes later the same performance happened - a near landing but nothing seen! The pilot gave up at that point and headed back to McMurdo, and I was finally able to cross the runway and head to shelter!

A couple of hours later another plane arrived (its a busy time at Pole right now - we expect 5 flights tomorrow!). The visibility had cleared to 100m and it managed to land. When it took off an hour and a half later I could barely see it, though the runway is only 100m from our building, and it was going in the wrong direction! I have never seen a plane take off to the south here - the wind's is always blowing from the other direction!

Its been a tiring last couple of days, but finally I see the end in sight. When I last wrote I could see disaster ahead - there were half a dozen problems to hand to which I couldn't see the solution. Thankfully they are now past, though another potential disaster came and went in the last few hours.

It all started when I managed to destroy that storage dewar, though fortunately another was found (and even the spare from McMurdo has now arrived). In fact I underestimated when I said the Americans always had six of everything, they have sixty-six of them! Apparently at McMurdo they have scores of these dewars and are looking for an excuse to get rid of them, because there is some newer, fancier better dewar now available! My second set of problems came when I installed the automatic nitrogen filling system, and found that only gaseous nitrogen would come out the end, no liquid! After taking everything apart it turned out that a new component we'd added this year, a sieve to keep our tubes clean, was reducing the pressure sufficiently that the nitrogen was all evaporating before it could reach the end of my fill tube! But in the process of doing this I must have climbed the stairs to the roof of the MAPO building 100 times. I had to set commands running on the computer, then run outside to see what they were doing, then disassemble bits and repeat the process, and finally put everything together. There is only so long you can work outside with fiddly bits before you need to run into the warm to recover, and add about 10 trips to fill my dewar with nitrogen, plus all those times I forgot some vital tool, I think I got my exercise in, as well as seeming to have spent half the day outside!

To more mundane matters. The weekend has just past and we had that good old American favourite, pizza, for Saturday dinner. Apparently a South Pole tradition. My skiing advanced to the point where I braved the super-direct descent down the mogul-covered ice ramp into the dome (ie skis straight ahead, no turning or braking), and survived! And I discovered a problem with the high-tech running machine in the exercise room - you cant set it to go faster than 10mph!

Rumour has it that the AASTO is due to arrive tomorrow, if the fog clears up.....

Michael Burton



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