South Pole Diaries 2000/01



Sunday 3rd December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

Twin Otter at Terra Nova off to Dome CJohn and I arrived at Terra Nova Bay just yesterday and we are scheduled to leave for Dome C on top of the Antarctic Plateau at 8 pm today (Sunday 3.12.00). We should reach Dome C one day *earlier* than originally planned.

Unfortunately, our instrumentation will not come with us in the Twin Otter.

The bad thing is that 3 toilets will be loaded instead of our instrumentation. This is something that should prompt us to reflect on the way that we think about scientific instrumentation. The good thing is that the people there didn't get confused as to which one was our experiment and which one was the toilet. In the end, there will be on the aircraft: 4 people + the pilot - and 3 toilets. Better than on a 747.

I tried to contact Dome C's Head (Augusto Lori) by radio to get permission to send the SUMMIT, but he convinced me otherwise in just one minute. The idea was that, as John suggested, we will arrive too tired to start with the SUMMIT installation, but not too tired to use the toilet...

In any case, the weather is not so bad and we should receive the instrumentation by the next flight, tomorrow morning. The Twin Otters allow us to bring 1 ton each flight. Today we have been involved in an introductory meeting for all the people that arrived on our flight at the "Pinguinattolo" (literally... well, there is not a direct, literal translation, but in Italian it sounds like "the penguin's place"). It is a wooden chalet where people meet trying to get funny. The meeting could be boring, but I was so happy - after a year and a half unsuccessfully trying to understand people talking Austr... English - to see Prof. John Storey, Head of the School of Physics of UNSW, unable to understand the easiest word, that, at the end, I felt very well.

Skua BirdIn my previous mail, I wrote "it has been a short trip" in the Subject. That's actually not true: it has been, for me, a very long trip, starting when I left Terra Nova Bay Station last time in 1991, promising myself to get back, soon or later. When I arrived here yesterday, just 9 years later, I felt as comfortable as I would had I left only a few weeks before. Despite my memory not being outstanding , I recognized many details of the place, any door, any stone, and I could write down the map of the station with millimetric accuracy. I was also able to find the nest of the Skua living close to the station, a station that probably looks to the Skua something like King's Cross does for Sydneysiders.

The station lies in a wonderful spot. On one side there is the Campbell ice tongue, a white strip underlying the horizon, on the other the Melbourne mountain, just a tall white cone, with a cyan crevasse on the side.

After an hour, I reached the top of the hill with John and then proceeded to the harbour on the other side of the hill that is still iced in this season. Sometimes John would get some footage with his camera. When he filmed, I tried to be silent, to let him record the "noise" of Antarctica. The temperature was mild, and the wind just a gentle breeze. When he stopped to get footage of the stones that the wind has worn in unusual but delicate profiles, it was possible to hear the absolute silence. In front of me there was a mountain, lying around a frozen harbour. A small iceberg was locked there earlier this summer, waiting ice melting to disappear definitively. A small depression surrounding the iceberg was unexpectedly green.

The surprising thing when you get to Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica, -74S latitude, is how such a deserted and remote place can look friendly and gentle in the summer. Forget Shakleton and frightening stories. A part of me would like to feel like an "antarctic hero", as somebody once called me. But unfortunately, this is just not the case: I could spend years in Terra Nova not getting annoyed, as the Italians have choosen a region in one of the best places on the coast to build their first station.

When I was coming here in the 90's, the organization was still not perfect and most of the results were due to the skills of individuals. Now, after several trips to the US stations, I was feeling that things have to change, and the Organization be improved to deal with the needs of the group. But when I stepped out off the C130 onto the thin layer of ice with the other fourty people flying with us, I found just about all the personnel of the station waiting like it was the only aircraft that had ever landed. I probably embraced 30 people, anybody was recognizing and greeting anybody else, a lot of neurons in my brain were co-operating to recognize people lying there (sometime successfully, more often not).

That's what it is to belong to a nation. Or a group. The same things you have been considering a defect (e.g., a natural tendancy to lack in an organization), can transform into an exceptional skill in another situation. And you realize that people are essentially the same and the only real difference resides within ourselves.


Sunday 3rd December 2000 - Pt 2

From John Storey.....

The story so far:

Paolo and I arrived at Terra Nova Bay just after 6 pm last night. It is the quickest trip to Antarctica either us of has ever made---in Paolo's case just 23 hours door-to door from UNSW. This is considerably faster than he could have gotten to Rome...

My own trip was a few hours slower, simply because I took a flight to Christchurch earlier in the day so I could visit the Whispertech company. This proved a very enlightening visit---the Whispertech Stirling-engine power generator is a wonderful piece of technology that could one day be an excellent replacement for the thermo-electric generator (TEG) we currently use in the AASTO. (Regular readers of the South Pole Diaries will know that the TEG is not one of our favourite things. This stems mainly from its habit of spitting the dummy on a regular basis and spewing hot hydrochloric acid and HF over our electronics.) The Whispertech donk may well prove to be one of the best things to come out of New Zealand since Andre. The Managing Director spent a couple of hours showing me around their research and production areas, and was very optimistic about their possible application in Antarctica.

The Whispertech co-generation unit consists of a four-cylinder double-acting Stirling engine directly driving an alternator. Part of the extreme cleverness is in the wobble-plate crankshaft, which sort of gyrates around like a belly-dancer's hips while the pistons go up and down. More of the cleverness can be found in the fact that all the moving parts are fully sealed, keeping the working fluid (in this case nitrogen) from leaking out and turning into hydrochloric acid or whatever. The whole arrangement produces 750 watts of electricity and a handy amount of heat, all the while burning modest quantities of propane or diesel fuel and making less noise than your average fridge. I want one.

On Saturday morning Paolo and I arrived at Christchurch CDC (Clothing Distribution Centre) at 8 am. We were fitted with our gear in record time and went straight to the flight check-in for a scheduled 10 am departure. There was the usual last-minute delay (this time to add more fuel to the Hercules, after a fuel gauge had mis-read), and we were away by 11:15. Being unable to understand any more than a few words of Italian I was able to relax completely during all the announcements, even finding words like "incendio" and "emergenza" quite soothing. I must find out what they mean some day.

We landed smoothly on the sea-ice runway after what seemed a very quick trip. The unloading of both passengers and cargo from the plane was extremely efficient, with the result that we were quickly settled in to the station. (That is, I was quickly settled in. Everyone else was hugging and kissing and greeting long lost friends. It was great to see.) Unfortunately the station was temporarily a bit over-crowded. Paolo and I (and, as we later found out, the other two folk travelling with us to Dome C tonight) are sleeping in a modified refrigerated shipping container---one that has previously been used as a dormitory on an overland traverse. Oddly enough it is fitted out with Australian power points, useful enough under the circumstances.

After a quick breather Paolo and I took a stroll up the valley and over some small hills. It was a crystal clear day and the view was spectacular. From the hilltop we could see how the ice was receding back from the ocean as summer proceeds, eventually to engulf the runway on which we had just landed. The runway will only be useable for another few days. The scenery was breathtaking; the hills dotted with extraordinary rock formations where the wind had undercut rocks to create quite implausible overhanging structures.

Terra Nova Bay station itself is built on the rocks next to the sea, in what is possibly the most beautiful location of any Antarctic station. Dominating the horizon is the active volcano, Mount Melbourne. The station itself consists largely of shipping containers bolted together and popped up on stilts, giving it the appearance of a giant Lego model. Every room is the same size and shape (modulo-n), though it's remarkable how different the character of each room can be. As befits an Italian station, there is an industrial-strength coffee machine in the common room, and the washrooms are thoughtfully provided with a hair drier alongside each basin.

Just above the station are a small group of buildings modelled along the lines of Tyrolean ski lodges. Some are dormitories, others are just so you can get away from it all, play guitar, sing and enjoy the view.

Dinner was full of cheer, helped along by the wine and an enormous (and delicious) cake baked by the chef to celebrate the birthdays of a couple of team-members. This was washed down with Prosecco (an agreeable Italian sparkling wine) and strong coffee.

This morning all the new-comers had a 90-minute briefing by the station leaders. I suspect it was not particularly riveting even for those who speak the language. For me, I was happy to pretend I was at an Italian opera for which the music was yet to be written. Occasionally everyone would laugh (usually after the station doctor had just said something) causing me a moment or two of concern about what potential medical disaster I might be about to unwittingly expose myself to. On the way back to the main building we came across an Adele penguin who was wandering around the station---just checking it out and completely unconcerned about the human inhabitants.

After lunch we discovered that we'd been bumped up to tonight's flight. Unfortunately our equipment won't accompany us immediately: our flight will be fully loaded with the four us, three high-tech electric toilets and a bandsaw. Oh yes, and a few boxes labelled "Eiskernkiste". I'm not sure what this means but "Eis" is German for ice-cream and "Kern" is German for nucleus, so I think what we have here are a couple of nuclear-powered ice-cream makers. When we arrive in Dome C we won't be in a fit state to start work immediately on our equipment, so as long as it follows us tomorrow we'll be fine. We may even have tried out the toilet and the ice-cream makers by then.