South Pole Diaries 2000/01



Monday 11th December 2000

From John Storey.....

I awoke early and went to see if Summit was still working. Just because Paolo and I were both asleep was no reason for our instrument to be. As it turned out it had stoppped shortly before I arrived---not because of any lethargy on Eric's part, but simply because we hadn't typed "go" enough times the previous evening. That's an easy one to fix, and Summit is now doing about 100 sky dips per day.

The remaining problems appear to be trivial. The UNSW team are now arguing vociferously about the best sequence to take data in. These are good arguments. I like them much more than the ones that begin: "Oops, that's blown up the last one of those. What the hell do we do now...?".

As one more check we placed a special wide-angle blackbody source (otherwise known as a C-130 orange carry-on bag) over the entrance window of Summit. If everything was working properly the signal should have been much the same at all elevation angles---it was.

However another problem is the sun. Even though the outside temperature is averaging -30C, we are so high and the air is so thin that the sun is really packing a wallop. There is no wind to speak of, and so anything the sun shines on gets quite warm. This includes our cold reference load, which is bolted to the case of the instrument and is supposed to sit at the ambient air temperature. After a morning's dose of sun it can reach +8C! We (ie, Paolo) will fix this problem by moving Summit closer to the building, where it will be in the shade for the critical part of the day. This move will require a bulldozer. I can think of a right way and a wrong way to use a bulldozer for this purpose; I am confident Paolo will choose the former.

The sun can also melt the snow alongside buildings where a natural sun-trap forms. The result is slick, icy surface that is very slippery.

Arrival at DOme C of the tractor traverse from Dumont D'UrvilleThe station also melts snow to create the water for washing and general purposes. This is done using waste heat from the diesel generator. Drinking water is brought from Dumont D'Urville by traverse. I asked the station manager why this was so, given that we are sitting on about 3,250 metres of the cleanest (frozen) water in the world. Apparently it's hard to get the diesel taste out of the water---the system needs some minor upgrades.

The Twin Otter to take me to McMurdo was due at 8 am, and this turned out to be 8 am Italian time---in the best possible sense. I filled in the time doing some filming, including an interview in Italian with the station doctor. (Paolo did the Italian bit; I did the filming.)

Did I mention that we are making yet another block-buster movie? Tentatively called "Paolo of the Antarctic" and shot entirely on location, it is expected for release some time soon after we've found a producer, an edit studio and a whole heap of money. Watch out for it on the big screen!

Offloading the tractorsAnyway, once the plane landed a substantial fraction of the station came out to greet the new arrivals and to help off-load the cargo. That's one of the great things about Dome C---everyone just chips in where they can. It is very much a village. Several people came and shook me warmly by the hand to wish me farewell, even people I had barely met. Jean-Louis packed me an in-flight lunch, and then it was time to leave. The plane was returning to McMurdo, and had just myself and a Twin Otter engineer as passengers. The pilot agreed to do a slow lap of the station at 400 feet so I could get some good aerial shots and then we headed up to 13,500 feet for the cruise back. Since the plane is unpressurised this was a heady altitude---I was glad I was already well aclimatised. Unfortunately poodle was not. Some goose had turned the heater in the tent last night down to the point where the temperature dropped below freezing. Sitting in a bag on the floor, poodle's batteries had gotten cold enough to temporarily stop working. (Rechargeable lithium batteries are surprisingly sensitive to temperature. This is in stark contrast to the non-rechargeable lithiums (lithium thionyl chloride) that we will use to power Icecam, even at -55C.)

Refuelling at "mid Point Charlie"We stopped again at Mid-point Charlie to refuel and to load six empty 44-gallon fuel drums into the plane. (Americans call these "55 gallon drums" because of a misunderstanding about gallons. Other people call them "200 litre drums", but very few and no-one listens to them anyway. It's all the same drum.)

Nearing McMurdo the weather was exceptionally clear and we had a fabulous view of the dry valleys and various glaciers. This has been rather warm summer and at least one of the "dry" valleys had a little stream running through it.

McMurdo is the same as ever except that the food has improved out of sight. The McMurdo canteen used to be one of the major hazards of Antarctic travel. Now it serves tasty meals with abundant fresh salads. They've even remodelled the dining room to include large picture windows. My only complaint was the mislabelling of some urns at the end of the room as "coffee", when they in fact containing nothing of the kind.

The other disappointment was the discovery that Eiskernkiste means "box for putting ice cores in". In the end I was grateful for this---no machine, nuclear powered or otherwise, would be able to make icecream like Jean Louis does. That brings to an end my diary for this year.

Over to you, Paolo!


Monday 11th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

"It has been great fun", was the last statement I heard from John (Storey) before his flight back to McMurdo, the largest station in Antarctica and the US gateway to the cold continent. The Twin Otter taking John back home will be in McM in a few hours. Then he will be moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, in a noisy and crowded US Hercules.

Actually I never understood exactly what the word "fun" means for the Australians. Does it means "it has *just* been fun", or "it has also been fun". Maybe "It has been a great experience to work with you, Paolo, as you are a great scientist and one of the most pleasant people I ever met in my life".

In Italian, the translation of the word fun - "divertimento" - is a bit too "light", has an intrinsic lack of diligence, maybe due to our approach a bit too cynical to candidly admit you are having a lot of fun while working.

Refuelling the Twin OtterAnyway, the light and edgy Twin Otter took off after a slight delay. The truth is that one of the pilots had to go to the toilet for some natural needs (that demonstrates that, despite their belief, that they are pretty different from God. At least at the gastrointestinal level), but the toilet door handle dismantled and he had to wait until the next person came to use the bathroom before he could return to the aircraft.

This probably doesn't happen easily at JFK or Sydney Airport, but let me say that here there are no queues, you are not bothered by rapacious Duty Frees and McDonalds. To board you have just to walk from a warm room for about 30 meters on the snow to the aircraft, after the pilot has switched off both the propellers, give a hand to discharge the cargo, take some photos and board in.

This issue of "aircraft photos" is a typical reason why I argue with my wife Jolanda when I return from my Antarctic trip or, in general, from any trip. The fact is that I'm impressed by any aircraft, just like a kid, so I like to take a lot of pictures of the most disrupted DC10 still available in the world. So, quite often I get pictures "of my aircraft after landing", and some days later, more pictures of "the same aircraft just before take off". When I get back, I ask Jolanda and my son Leonardo, my predesigned victims, to be chained to a chair for a couple of hours to watch my pictures or my slides, of which there are usually several hundred. The problem arises because "an aircraft where I was sitting down after landing" and "the same aircraft before take off with John Storey inside", despite what I thought at the time, look just the same. The result is a boring sequence of trivial aircraft pictures that could put anybody to sleep faster than a hammer on their front.

Anyway, John is now heading North, and I am now the only person left here in charge of the instrument, with a lot of colleagues in Sydney (Michael A., Andre, Michael B. and some others) just waiting for results, data quick looks, checks, updates, information, questions, documentation and replies to their questions......and the previous questions I replied to so late that they thought I didn't reply at all.

When you are in Antarctica and there is somebody else relying on you for instrument management, quite often you find that they feel that you are just sleeping and wandering around all the day, feeding yourself with huge quantities of good food, playing cards and watching porno movies.

The problem is that you feel exactly the same about your colleagues back home, except for some slight differences: they are just wandering around in a warm breeze, in short pants, maybe swimming at Bondi Beach, browsing the web, replying to hundreds of useless friend's e-mails, playing Barbie's with their daughters, and at the end, enjoying the easy life the moment you closed the door of the lab to fly to the pole.

Both of these approaches are bad for sure (except, perhaps, for that part about the huge quantities of good food and something else...), but why would anybody change their attitude a minute after you leave? No-one will ever get to demonstrate it, like no-one can actually convince you that you are snoring all the night as loud as a Wind Band - the result is a slight complaining approach to your overseas colleagues, a voile of tension made even more visible by the delayed replies to e-mails that make people even more crazy.

Luckily, the instrument we brought here "is a ripper", as the Australians like to say. The first time I heard this word at UNSW, for some reason I misunderstood the meaning of the word, thinking that "ripper" meant something faulty from the beginning, a rusty piece of metal, a swick. I replied with alot of suggestions which seemed quite intelligent to me but that, in the end, turned out to be completely silly, unrequested and meaningless.

Now I am very proud to say that the instrument we installed just a few days ago here at Dome C for atmospheric site testing, alias the SUMMIT, the submillimeter tipper, is really a ripper (please note the lucky assonance). The instrument is quietly acquiring his data, and a process in the background, on the same computer I am currently writing this email on, is safely transferring data to the hard disk, for processing later.

How do they look? Are you interested on this issue? Well, if yes, go ahead but, later, see a doctor.

Otherwise, just move to another less boring web site like I am not sure it exist, but it is probably more interesting than the following.

For the survivors, this is the way we receive rough data from our instrumentation:

waiting up to 120.0 seconds for rotator; hit key to abort:
R -2000
0.9957+/- 0.066
1.0166+/- 0.072
delaying 2 seconds; hit key to abort; time remaining:
z -2001
waiting up to 120.0 seconds for rotator; hit key to abort:
R -1000
0.4026+/- 0.071
0.3824+/- 0.089
delaying 2 seconds; hit key to abort; time remaining:
z -1001
Warm blackbody 16.29 C (raw = -2.76 V, 1482 counts) delaying 2 seconds; hit key to abort; time remaining:

Yes, this is the way Michael Ashley, one of the most perverse researchers I have ever met in my life, formatted the data throughput from the instrument. To analyse it you will probably lose some of the remaining diottries on both of your eyes, watching tiny characters quickly flowing across the screen, ready to take note of the relevant parts......but let me confess that this approach has demonstrated itself to be reliable and safe, and able to run data acquisition and instrument control programs on a computer with memory more or less like the former ENIAC, in order to reduce power consumption, a quite important constraint in developing instrumentation for Antarctica.

For today, that's it. I have to get to lunch.

See you tomorrow.



Coming Soon!