In May 2017, I accepted a job offer at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) in Madison - a job that sent me to the bottom of the Earth. IceCube is a giant Neutrino detector at the South Pole, and it was my job to keep its computers running. For an entire year (November 2017 to November 2018) I lived and worked at the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. Being an IceCube "Winterover" has been my dream job for years - and I made the dream real. This page is my journal of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Most of the content will be in English, but I might write in German occasionally. The journal entries are sorted by date (oldest first).
Please remember that I created and own all the contents and photos on this blog (if not denoted otherwise), and that I put a lot of love and effort into it. Please don't just take or re-post stuff without my permission. If you are interested in a particular text or photo, feel free to contact me via email.
"Passengers BUSSE and WERTHEBACH, please report to the Delta personnel at gate A75!"
The announcement echoes from the marble walls of the airport toilet. That's me! I rush outside, where Johannes, my workmate for the upcoming 16 months, is waiting for me, already having grabbed our bags to follow the tinny instructions. It's not late at all, so what could they possibly want from us? Could they have mistaken the electronics kit in my luggage for a dangerous device? Am I being arrested?? "Congratulations, Ms. Busse, Mr. Werthebach. You have been upgraded to our Delta Business Class!" says the lady at the Delta desk to us, smiling over both ears. Phew. Not what I had expected. Well I call that a fabulous start to my dreamjob!
After having enjoyed the comforts of a nine-hour overbooked flight to the very fullest (including a bed, free socks, cocktails and a gourmet lunch), we set foot to the lobby area of Madison Wisconsin airport, slightly hungover. Our supervisor Ralf is waiting for us. Both Johannes and I have been here before, when we were being interviewed in April for the very job we will start tomorrow. So Ralf's baseball cap already looks quite familiar to us, which makes him easy to spot in the crowd.
After grabbing some dinner in the "Great Dane", Ralf drops us off at our hotel. I am tired despite my ridiculously comfortable flight experience, so I drop into bed right away. The nightly glow of the State Capitol falls into my hotel room window, making sure everybody gets their well deserved slumber.
Ice Facts #1 South Pole seasons
South Pole works a little differently than what we are used to. There only is one long day (the austral summer) in which the sun never sets, and one long night (the austral winter) in which it never rises. Most people at South Pole only work there in the summer. However, there are a handful of crazy people called winterovers, who stay at South Pole station all year long. This is a demanding and also dangerous job for many reasons. During the long Antarctic night, there is no way of leaving Pole (because the weather is too bad and too cold for planes to land). There is limited internet and NO FREAKIN SUNLIGHT.
Every year, IceCube sends two winterovers who stay at Pole for 13 months. Their job is to keep the detector running at all time.
Science Facts #1 The IceCube detector
The IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory is a huge particle detector buried in the about 2500 m thick Antarctic ice sheet at the geographic South Pole. It has an instrumented detector volume of 1 km3 and weighs over a 100.000.000 tons. 5160 optical sensors, called "DOMs", attached to 86 long cables take data 24 every single day.
IceCube is looking for ultra-high-energy neutrinos from outer space. Upon colliding with the molecules of the ice, the neutrinos produce secondary charged particles which then again generate a little flash of blue light. This is called the "Cherenkov Effect". The light can be seen by the optical sensors. The neutrinos leave a signature in the detector from which the IceCube scientists can extract the particle's energy, and sometimes the direction it was coming from.
The strings and DOMs have been deployed in the ice by melting deep holes with a hot-water drill head that was specifically designed for IceCube. Soon after each string was in its place, the holes froze shut - as long as the Antarctic plateau exists, the IceCube sensors will never see the sunlight again. The data collected by the DOMs is sent to the IceCube Laboratory at the surface, where it is recorded, filtered, processed and forwarded to the Northern hemisphere for analysis.
Why is IceCube so big?
Because of their nature, neutrinos hardly ever interact with matter. And on top of that, the flux of neutrinos with very high energies is pretty low - so the bigger the detector, the better the chance of catching at least a few of them every year.
Why at the South Pole?
In order for the optical sensors to see the Cherenkov light, the surrounding medium must be transparent to the visible and UV spectrum - ice is just perfect for that! The South Pole is the only place on Earth with a sufficiently deep and clear ice sheet. The 1 km long IceCube strings are covered by 1.5 km of ice, to shield the sensitive DOMs from unwanted atmospheric charged particles, like muons, that might leave a signature in the detector that can not be distinguished from a cosmic neutrino. But even despite the big shield, a lot of those particles reach the detector anyway - that's why all downgoing particle events (i.e. that enter IceCube from above) are ditched as false events in the high-energy analysis, because nobody can say for sure whether the signal was created by cosmic neutrino or something else. Upgoing signals, on the other hand, must have been created by particles that have traveled through the whole Earth, and only neutrinos can do that!
Besides the main high-energy array, IceCube features two sub-experiments: "IceTop" at the surface consists of two DOMs on top of every string, and is used mainly as a veto mechanism against downgoing muons. "DeepCore" in the center of IceCube features strings with a much higher DOM density to detect lower-energy neutrinos, e.g. for studying neutrino oscillation.
To get a better idea of IceCube, you can have a look at the picture above (courtesy of the IceCube collaboration) or visit icecube.wisc.edu.
The first two weeks of winterover Training have gone by in notime, and I have been very much enjoying every little piece of it so far. Well that's not entirely true, there were some organisational issues to get over with (like getting an American bank account, American Health insurance, a VISA orientation class, all of which came with a load full of paperwork. And let me tell you, getting an American Social Security Number is particularly nasty ;)). But apart from that, it's a lot of fun. Everyone here at WIPAC (Wisconsin Particle Astrophysics Center) is excited to work with us, which makes me feel at home already. Besides, Johannes and I get along great, and I have no doubt we will make a good winterover team.
Having used the words "IceCube" and "Winterover" a lot already, I figured this second entry of my journal might be a good opportunity to explain a little (see the blue boxes above). I will try to drop an IceCube or winterover fact every once in a while throughout my journal, so if you think I'm boring you might at least learn something ;).
Life as a winterover trainee is no walk in the park - except when it is.
Last week, Johannes and I were roaming the State Capitol front yard, when suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of the Madison Outreach Pride Parade. Shiny clothes, rainbow flags, candy-coloured wigs and lots of exposed skin everywhere. Once we made our way through the marching bands and dancing people, we decided to get some pizza and enjoy the show from a distance - equipped with our cameras. I managed to catch the scenery in my favorite Madison-photograph so far - I decided to go with monochrome for this one, because the vivid colours would blind you for the true beauty of this moment.
For my 27th birthday, we enjoyed a couple of beers at the Union Terrace with Sarah and Khan, two other researchers from Germany we met in our VISA orientation class. We went to something called "Dane Dances" - and holy cannoli, when it comes to open air disco, the Madison folks are ON FIRE! Speaking of beers, Madison has quite a selection of local brews. Take a look at the picture below, maybe you can figure out why I chose that particular one ;)
Ice Facts #2 Winterover training
Here's to all the people who keep asking me: "Are you getting locked in freezers a lot for winterover training?" The answer is: No. We have giant freezers here, but those are for DOM (Digital Optical Module) testing rather than for winterover natural selection. But luckily, deep-freezing winterover trainees still SEEMS to have a certain fascination on some WIPAC scientists, so I get to try the freezers out from time to time - and -40 °C is really not as bad as I thought. Until the cold starts creeping up your pants and sleeves. Then it's bad.
So what AM I doing all day? There is a lot of things winterover-to-bes have to learn before being released to the ice. They have to know the IT infrastructure of IceCube like the back of their hands - every single server and switch, all the power supplies, each cable. Ralf has us stripping down each machine to its pieces and putting it back together again - not in the actual IceCube data center obviously, but at the SPTS, the South Pole Test System. That means most of our time we spend between SPTS server racks. It's noisy, but also full of exciting sophisticated technical Schnickschnack! :)
Another winterover trainee task is to load the big IceCube cargo crate, which leaves for South Pole mid September. So far, we packed it up with roughly 1.5 metric tons of UPS batteries and spare hard drives - almost good to go!
The sun does not always shine over Madison. In fact, it has been getting quite autumnal around here lately. A perfect opportunity to to get a little exercise in handling my new camera! Trust me though, for a fully-trained perfectionist like me it's not easy to pick up a new hobby just like that. But with a little help from all-time photography expert Johannes, I do manage to take a not-so-bad picture from time to time. My new favorite Madison photograph is also quite a luckshot I guess:
The electric screwdriver utters a tiny bzzzzzzzd, as I affix the last bolt into the heavy lid of the IceCube cargo crate. I am now sitting on top of two metric tons of shit-expensive technical IceCube gear! Packing up all that stuff was a lot of fun - unpacking it at Pole in freezing -30 °C at an elevation of almost 3000 m: Probably not so much. The crate will leave for Pole this week, but will arrive about three weeks later than ourselves 'round the end of November.
While we've been busy packing up the crate, summer has returned to the city of Madison. As we step outside, we get struck by 30 °C and the mid-Wisconsin typical oppressive humidity. Time for a swim in lake Mendota! The water is pleasantly cool and so crystal clear that I can see the giant carps swimming around my feet. I close my eyes for a second to enjoy the moment... until suddenly someone nearby fires up a lawn mower the size of a pickup truck. Besides the fact you can't buy decent bread here, the one thing that bugs me about Madison is the CONSTANT NOISE. The lawn around the Capitol gets mowed daily (no kidding), and as soon as the mowers are gone, leaf blowers shovel fallen foliage from one pile to another and back again for several hours. There are always truck engines running everywhere, and the few seconds in between all of this are filled with the sirens of an ambulance. But yeah, this really is complaining at the highest possible level - but sometimes I forget how privileged I get to be for the awesome job I have in this amazing city, and for the kickass company of my WO buddy Johannes.
Although winterover training has been getting tougher since the focus shifted from hardware to software, there still is enough time to explore the wild Midwest of America. The wildest thing we encountered so far is the "original Chicago deep dish pizza" - a 2 mm thin pizza crust topped with marinara sauce and 4 cm (!) of cheese. Yes, really. There are no regrets.
Ice Facts #3 Packing for Pole
So how does a winterover's packing list look like? First of all, you need a year's supply of EVERYTHING. This is more difficult than it sounds - or do you know exactly how much toothpaste you use up in 13 months? Or what kind of medication you might need? You can not just pack everything "just in case", since every winterover has a total baggage allowance of 46 kg. Next to toiletries and all that everyday stuff, you need things that keep you entertained. I packed a shitload of yarn - maybe by the end of winter everybody on station will have a silly handmade sweater they didn't ask for! :D The more nostalgic winterovers also should pack a buncha' photographs of their loved ones - there's no seeing them in a looooong time.
The most expensive and spacially demanding items in a winterover's bag: Warm clothes. Lot's of it. That includes heavy socks, hats, scarfs, balaclavas and long underwear. And of course you want the fancy Merino stuff, so plan on spending quite some money (for what I know it's worth every penny though; I got to try some of it during some cold Madison days already). And that's only the base layer of what you will be wearing at Pole. The ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear will luckily be issued to you right before you go - you have to give it back upon re-deployment when your year is over though.
The good thing is: During the austral summer, people can send you stuff. So if you forgot to pack your underpants, it's not the end of the world - at least not if you notice before the end of summer ;)
The most important lesson I learned in the last couple of months: NEVER provoke your own luck at the airport with a carelessly spoken jings. "I never lost a bag at the airport before" is NOT a smart thing to say when baggage claim is about to start. So yeah, my vacation started with a couple of hours of unintended idle time at the airport, in which I was waiting for my luggage that apparently decided to board a different plane than myself. Anyway, in the end I was happily reunited with my bag, my boyfriend Simon and my parents at exit 5 of Düsseldorf airport, ready for my 10-days of home vacation.
These 10 days unfortunately went by in notime. I tried to spend as much quality time with Simon and my friends as possible, visit all my favorite Münster bars and restaurants, have a little coffee party with the guys from AG Kappes - my workgroup at the Münster physics department - and I even had another little going-away party just for my family! I have not yet fully realized I won't be seeing those folks for over a year. I am afraid that's about to hit me very soon... Luckily Simon made me the most awesome going-away present: A virtual 360 °C panorama tour of all my favorite places in the "real world". This is where I will be going when I become homesick.
For my German-speaking friends:
Herzliche Einladung zum Astroseminar der Uni Münster! Als alter winterover-Hase wird mein Kumpel Emanuel dieses Jahr einen Vortrag mit dem Titel "Von Neutrinos und Erdbeeren am Südpol" über sein Jahr in der Eiswüste halten. Dazu gibt es wie immer jede Menge andere spannende Vorträge rund um das Thema Astrophysik; eingeladen ist jeder, der Bock drauf hat (kein Physik-Vorwissen erforderlich).
"IC to Team Alpha: Report your situation!" "Team Alpha to -bbrrzzz IC: Large fire ... second floor of B building - brrzzzzzzz zz of smoke ... one person missing. I repeat: One person missing. Requesting backup. Over -brrzzzzz." "IC copies. Sending in Team Bravo."
But there's no time waiting for Team Bravo. The visibility is literally zero, black smoke everywhere. With one hand I feel the ground in front of me, my other hand is sliding the wall; slowly crawling forward inch by inch. My team mate is crawling behind me, carefully following the dim glow of my oxygen tank. Suddenly my hand runs into something that feels like a human foot - the missing person is unconsciously leaning against the wall in front of me! Screaming our encounter over the coms system, I make a desperate attempt to tie my rope around the victim's chest, in pitch black darkness and with heavy firefighter's gloves on my hands. Icecold sweat runs down my face as the regulator on my SCBA mask starts vibrating - an indicator for my tank being almost empty. "I am low on air - let's get him the f*ck out of here!"
When we finally close the door of the smoky corridor in building B behind us, both my team mate and me rip off our SCBA masks to inhale a chunk of fresh air. Sean, the fire chief of the Aurora Public Safety Training Center, declares the scenario successful - what a relief! As we check on the victim, he is not breathing - which is probably because he does not have a head. And is made out of lead and plastic. He's also not wearing clothes, but that's a whole different story.
You're wondering what is going on? Firefighter training in Denver, CO is going on! Since there will be no professional firefighters at South Pole station during winter, a certain amount of people has to be trained accordingly; to become the southernmost fire brigade on earth! Juan, Sean and Jessie are the three professional firefighters who's lucky job it is to get us in shape - us, a mixed bunch of scientists, technicians, cooks, plumbers, electricians, machinists. We all met each other just this week, and now we are supposed to fight fires together. Exciting!
Becoming a firefighter is tough. The full gear, including helmet, hood, coat, pants, boots, gloves and air pack, weighs almost 30 kg. They make us crawl through mazes, fully bunkered up, in complete darkness and while breathing off a tank. I am actually pretty good at the maze because I am tiny, with a record time of 5:15 minutes! What I am not good at is dragging unconscious people around, let alone up a flight of stairs. I have a hard enough time carrying my own extra weight of gear! Every night I get home with sore muscles, dirty clothes and outright utterly exhausted. At this point I want to acknowledge my sister Claudia, who happens to be an actual professional firefighter: You are my hero! :) Despite the physical inconveniences the fire training might bring along, I am having the time of my life right now. If you ever get the chance to winter at Pole, sign up for fire training - trust me, that's what you want. Not only because the lieutenant is really cute.
One last thing: It never gets old to see people in full gear wiggling their butts to prevent their fire-fighter-is-not-moving-alarm-device from going off all the time... :D
After a great but exhausting week of fire school in Denver, the soon-to-be winterovers are looking forward to a few less physically demanding days at the YMCA in Estes Park, Colorado. It's a three hour drive to the hostel, and because I usually get ridiculously carsick, our station manager Marco offered me the passenger seat of his car. I may be missing out on the party bus, but Marco even downloaded a bunch of Led Zeppelin albums for the ride because he knows it's my favorite band. Jackpot!
We are the first to arrive in Estes Park. It's a pretty chilly October evening, so I'm glad to sit by the fire in the huge lobby of the YMCA, munching pizza, while Marco is checking everybody in. One by one, the group is dribbling in, being handed their room assignments. I'm gonna be sharing a room with NOAA officer Cherisa for the week, whom I'll find to be pretty easy to live with! :)
The week soon turns out not to be quite as relaxing as we thought it would be - after all, we're not here for vacation, but for hardcore winterover team building! They hired a guy named Shawn to get our group in shape for 13 months of being confined to a small cage in the middle of nowhere; and although I think he's doing a great job, not quite everybody is digging his methods. I wasn't too convinced at first either, but after I have accepted the fact that this was gonna be - no matter if people were up for it or not - a week full of communication lectures, group exercises with hoolahoops, leaky pipes and twisted ropes, scavenger hunts in the mountains, and a boat-building competition, it is actually a lot of fun.
Arguably, the food at the YMCA is not the greatest. Every night at dinner, you can watch 30 winterovers one by one sneaking up to the kid's corner to snitch corn poppers and chicken nuggets, because the "adult" food sucks. As a vegetarian, my food options here are usually reduced to the salad bar - but if you have a year of very limited amounts of fresh food ahead of you, why not go to town on the greens while you still can.
Apart from the food, the Estes Park YMCA is really not the worst place to be. Beautiful sunsets, fresh air, lots of wildlife, and the stunning Colorado mountains all around. Generations of winterover crews have spent their last week in the real world at this very spot, and the wild anticipations of the things that are about to come give this place a certain magic. Estes Park, where teams are being built.
Ice Facts #4 Extreme Cold Weather Gear
Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) Gear includes all kinds of clothes to protect you from South Pole's harsh environment. The most important ECW item is the "Big Red": The red Canada goose parka which does a perfect job to shield you from the wind and cold, has a trizillian pockets to store (and loose) all your stuff in, and even has your name velcroed to it so that people know who you are when they meet you outside and are not yet familiarized with the way you walk ;) Then, of course, there are the "Bunny Boots": Big white boots made out of rubber to keep the warm air inside and isolate your feet from the icy ground they are walking on (I would later swap mine for a pair of the much more comfortable blue boots you can see in the picture). All your ECW comes in big orange bags which further contain three kinds of mittens, a neck gaiter, a hat, goggles, wind-shield pants, and a bunch of other stuff. Everything that's in there has to be returned upon your re-deployment to the real world.
Christchurch in New Zealand is THE hub for everybody who goes to Antarctica, at least if their destination is McMurdo. The USAP (United States Antarctic Program) has it's own little terminal right next to the Christchurch airport, where they park all the big military airplanes that eventually get people to the icy continent. But for that to happen, the weather has to be just right - in Christchurch as well as in McMurdo, which at this time of year can be a little tricky. You can't land a plane on a runway made out of ice in shitty winds and blizzards, and that's why there's a good chance of getting stuck in Christchurch for a few days before actually reaching Antarctica. And let me tell you, Christchurch is not the worst place to get stuck in.
But first things first: Gear issue at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC). Thousands of ECW items are being stored here, waiting to be handed out to intrepid Antarctic explorers. In the big changing room, I find two large orange duffel bags with my name on them, containing all the clothes that are being issued to me, including a Big Red, a Little Red, Bunny Boots, mittens, liners, bibs, etc.; all selected for me according to the clothing sizes I had submitted with a form months ago. It takes me an hour to go through all my stuff, trying things on, swapping out sizes. By the time I'm done, we are all being herded together into the big conference room for the mandatory briefing on safety, rules of behaviour and etiquette at the US Antarctic Bases.
With a year of insanely negative temperatures and six months of darkness in mind, I am well aware that this is my last chance to fill up my brain with all the good memories of lush green vegetation, chirping birds, and summer vibes. And what place could be a better fit for the purpose than the Botanical Gardens?
Early in the morning of the first day of being delayed for my flight to Antarctica, I set out from my hotel room to go find the Botanical Gardens of Christchurch, equipped with just a bottle of water, my loyal camera and a credit card. The springtimey weather is absolutely lovely, and it doesn't take long to find the right way. The Christchurch gardens are among the most peaceful places I've been to. There's a bunch of people around, but nobody is loud or littering or inconsiderate. After having roamed between the flower patches for a good hour, I spot a dude with a guitar under a tree. I hang around for a little while, listening to the familiar strumming while watching the sparrows pick up bread crumbs on the dusty trail.
I almost decided to head back to the hotel, when I suddenly get struck by the brilliant idea to take my shoes off - because when will I be able to do that again, outside? So I roam the whole garden again, this time with no shoes. With the sensation of the soft grass beneath my toes, everything seems even greener and more vivid than before.
But even the most hardcore garden fans get hungry, so I meet up with part of my winterover crew in a Speakeasy that Cherisa found. Speakeasies are bars or restaurants that can not be identified as such from the outside, and their only advertisement is the word of their customers. This one looks like a laundromat to the passer-by, but when you open the door you find yourself in a cozy little cocktail bar with Asian flair to it.
Upon return to my hotel room in the evening of the second day in the springtime of the Southern hemisphere, I find a letter that has been slipped under my door, saying that I am expected at the airport at 6:45 the next morning. Ouuuuh exciting! :D Just because you are being summoned to the terminal doesn't actually mean you fly to Antarctica the same day; the weather in McMurdo can change so drastically within hours that you might be sent home again, sometimes mid-flight - that is called boomeranging. But we are lucky this nice, warm springtime morning of October 31st, so that we soon find ourselves shoulder to shoulder in the big cargo hold of the C-17 aircraft, which after a five hour flight sets on to land at McMurdo Station Airfield, Antarctica.
My stomach begins to feel funny as the pilot starts to accelerate the big C-17 "Globemaster" airplane on the runway. Without my earplugs, the noise of the engine is almost unbearable. I can not see what is going on, because we are strapped to our jumper seats on both sides of the cargo hold, facing big containers between us. From here, it is impossible to see through one of the few tiny circular windows. It takes almost forever until the massive structure of steel and khaki has gained enough speed to finally take off - on its way to Antarctica!
Flying in a C-17 is an adventure by itself. No commercial airline flies to Antarctica, so you get to fly with one of these badass military planes of the American Air Force - not exactly the most comfortable experience in the world, but definitely exciting!
Almost everybody who is on transit to South Pole has to go through McMurdo station. It is the biggest of the Antarctic stations; in summer it can hold up to 1200 people. I only spent one night here, so I did not get to see all the facilities except my quarters, the galley and both bars. The gateway to South Pole is Williams Airfield, which is located about 30 minutes away from McMurdo station by "Ivan the Terra Bus", a terribly slow vehicle that used to shuttle passengers in McMurdo for generations. People get to wait around at the airfield a lot, because it happens quite occasionally that flights get canceled at last minute due to bad weather in McMurdo, at South Pole or in between - luckily, we were able to take off after about 2 hours. The big C-17s can not land on the snowy skiway at South Pole, so the aircrafts flying the primary missions to the bottom of the world are the LC-130s, aka "Hercules". They are smaller, lighter and equipped with skis instead of wheels.
South Pole. I made it to South Pole. The dream is real! This is the happiest day of my life. I can not find enough words to describe how breathtakingly beautiful this place is. I am still overwhelmed by happieness, astonishment and all the new impressions that are flooding my brain right now, it almost feels like flying. ... Or, well, I could still be suffering from altitude sickness which has about the same effect; I feel about 20 lbs lighter and the station seems to move around a little like on a boat. I felt it very heavy the first day, and of course you are supposed to take it seriously, but I actually kinda liked it ;).
The temperature at Pole is a negative 45 °C right now (that's kinda chilly). The sun is high up in the sky as it will be for the next months. The picture you can see above is taken around 10 pm. Settling in on station, being handed over my new job and processing all the amazing stuff that is happening on top of that keeps me very busy, but you will hear from me shortly!
ICL, the IceCube Lab, is located about a kilometer North from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station - which is quite a walk, considering you have to wear all your ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear, you are walking on snow, and icy wind might be blowing in your face depending on which direction you walk. So yeah, this is very much not a walk in the park, especially when you are being an idiot - like myself - and take off your outer-layer-mittens in -60 °C windchill for a few seconds to adjust your neck gaiter. Once your hands are cold, in this environment there is no way of getting them warm again with pure blood circulation. I had to walk back the whole way from ICL thinking my hands would gonna fall off (which is a legit reason for NPQ btw). The bad thing: It hurts even more once you're back on station and they start getting warm again. Seriously, that's incredibly painful. Luckily it turned out to not be a real frostbite quite yet. Lesson learned.
Despite this frosty experience, I have been very much enjoying every minute of life on Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station so far, even though I was not able to sleep yet, most likely because of my altitude symptoms and because I am just too excited to be here. This is so very much the right place on earth for me that I am already considering coming back. The station is all neat and clean, the food is amazing, and I feel very much at home. They assigned me a windowless room at first which I was quite unhappy about, but luckily one of my co-Winterovers switched rooms with me - apparently there are people who do not like 24 hours of sunlight in their room ;).
Martin and James, the last season's IceCube winterovers, are turning their duties over to us during the next two weeks. We are taking it easy though while we are still adjusting to the elevation. So there is some free time to kill, which I sometimes spend helping out my new friend Grant in the dishpit - I like it there, and the community very much appreciates people who pitch in, which gives me my daily dose of good-deed-afterglow :)
Science Facts #2 IceTop Snow Measurements
If you paid attention in my IceCube facts #1, you might have noticed that IceCube does not only have in-ice optical sensors to measure the neutrinos, but also features some modules right beneath the surface - these are called IceTop stations. Each of the 86 strings that are deployed in the ice has one of them on top. All together, the IceTop stations are used to measure lower-energy neutrinos, and they also serve as a veto-mechanism for the in-ice DOMs. The problem with stuff that is set up at the surface of South Pole ice plateau: It does not stay at the surface for very long. Things are being burried in snow drift faster than you can say "penguin". Since the amount of snow that covers IceTop has an affect on the measurements, every once in a while the IceCube winterovers have to go out and estimate the snow level on every single IceTop station. This can be a long and cold adventure, depending on the windchill and how many people can be motivated to help. Fortunately, the old winterovers Martin and James were still here (they belong to the handfull of toasty people who are still waiting for a plane to take them back to the real world) to help Johannes and me, so it took us only two afternoons.
"Attention South Pole Station, attention South Pole Station!"
My well-deserved sleep is being ended abruptly by the announcement over the radio.
"Flight SK-21 from McMurdo is canceled. I repeat: Flight SK-21 from McMurdo is CANCELED."
Listening closely, I can hear a mumbled expression of disappointment rolling through South Pole Station. The radio all-call that just woke me up is not unfamiliar at all: It means that today's flight from McMurdo to South Pole Station is canceled again - like all the flights in the last week. It also means that no cargo and no new summer workers are coming in today, and, most importantly, no winterovers of last season can get out. There is still a handfull of them on station, and being delayed over and over again has made them a little tetchy. Most of them are missing out on their well-deserved vacations, others are just understandably fed up with being stuck here. I may or may not be in their situation in a year from now; but so far, every day here is another day in paradise for me!
My IceCube driver seat duties still leave me enough time to explore the station and see what everybody else is doing. This week's mission: Annoy the weather people! The meteorology department is in the B2 lab, right next to my own workplace. So from time to time I go over there, visit my new friends JJ and Janelle to see what they're up to. If you get on their nerves long enough, they let you launch one of their weather balloons (see picture to the right)! :)
Ice Facts #5 South Pole aircrafts
South Pole aviation is a particularly tricky business. A mission's success depends on many different factors - mostly weather, which is pretty much unpredictable in McMurdo, at Pole and in between. For a plane to fly, the weather has to be just perfect. It can changes within minutes though, and it happens quite frequently that planes take off in McMurdo, fly all the way Pole just to discover that the weather has changed so severely that they aren't able to land safely, and fly all the way back. This is called "boomeranging".
There are four planes to fly missions to Pole: Most cargo and people come in on a LC-130 or Hercules, the biggest ski-equipped air craft to land here. Backup missions are flown in the much smaller Baslers. Their cabin is not pressurized, so they have to fly very low, which means you get a beautiful view of Antarctica! The tiniest planes to fly to Pole are the Twinotters. Tourists or important people often arrive in those. Their engines are small enough to be heated up externally, so they can actually be parked at Pole for several days - in contrast to the Hercules machines, whose engines have to run the whole time they're here. The by far biggest Antarctic air crafts are the C-17s or Globemasters. Those are not equipped with skies and are way too heavy to land on the snowy South Pole ski way, so they are used to get people from Christchurch to McMurdo's Phoenix air field, which is located on the ice shelf and can carry more load, until it melts in the summer. The annual South Pole air drop is also flown by these gigantic machines, because it does not require landing.
Fun fact: For each of the South Pole air crafts, there is a server with the same name in ICL! Globemaster takes care of syslog and serves as an NSF mount, hercules hosts the IceCube wiki and SVN, basler is our backup server and twinotter is home of our monitoring system.
A not-so-busy week at South Pole! It's my third week here, and we already set a new absolute record-low of air crafts arriving. We only had four planes so far, all of them in my first week - basically every department on station is behind schedule now, either waiting for people or cargo or both to finally arrive at Pole. There is a ton of summer workers sitting in McMurdo who already hit their RETURN date from Pole without having been able to even get here.
On Sunday, we finally got an aircraft coming in - unfortunately one that wasn't going to land here. The conditions only allowed for the annual air drop, which means a big C-17, or Globemaster, approaching station, circling above for a couple of times, then dropping some cargo near station site, and returns to Christchurch, leaving behind a hand full of crying still-on-station 2017 winterovers - or leftovers, how they are nowadays called - who desperately want to get out of here.
Since work for most departments here is basically frozen (chrchr) until cargo arrives, the station population killed their time with allerlei Unfug; e.g. sliding down the snow drifts on kitchen equipment (see picture below) or telling comforting lies about the weather situation to the leftovers.
After another week of anxiously watching the weather forecasts and listening to Comms announcements about flight updates, we finally, FINALLY got a Hercules coming in today, which was a big relief for almost everybody on station, especially the leftovers. I am a little sad they're leaving though, I really got to like them despite their tetchyness about being stuck here. But I guess I have to accept the sad truth that everybody has to leave South Pole at some point. ;) My boss Ralf also arrived on the Hercules, which means we finally can get started on IceCube summer upgrades!
Okay okay, I'm up! What is it now? Does baby need a diaper change? In fact it does, except that the baby is IceCube, and the diaper is some part of its system that misbehaves. And if IceCube becomes very unhappy, it wakes up one of its winterovers over the radio to get some attention. And tonight is my turn. At a place that has brightest sunlight 24 hours a day, it's sometimes hard to tell the time by peaking through a window. But you can tell by the people you meet in the hallways. At night, the normally very busy station is fairly quiet, and the only people I run into are our breakfast chef Denise, and Josh, one of our satellite engineers, who is getting his first coffee of the work day. Having reached the B2 lab, I can quickly identify tonight's problem as a crash of the Data Processing and Filtering (PnF) system. This happens quite frequently, so I know exactly what to do. Nonetheless, I sit by my computer for a while to wait till baby IceCube calms down slowly.
Yes, that's right - As an IceCube winterover, you work whenever IceCube needs you, be it in the middle of the night or in the middle of your bi-weekly two-minute shower. Johannes and I work in alternating 7-day shifts, in which we have to pay very close attention to our radios in case IceCube gives us an emergency call.
Even though my ongoing shift has been extremely page-intensive so far, I am still having a blast at South Pole - especially now that I have officially celebrated my first Thanksgiving ever! I learned that nowadays, this American holiday is mostly about food, of which I had plenty - and vegetarian turkey really can be super tasty! The galley staff does an absolutely amazing job to keep us all happy.
Ice Facts #6 The South Pole Traverse
Imagine a caravane in a desert - but instead of camels, you've got heavy bigass bulldozers; instead of tents, you've got containers on gigantic sleds; and instead of sand, you've got ice as far as the eyes can see. That's the South Pole Traverse. Three times a summer season, 10 intrepid heroes go on this incredible journey, towing fuel bladders all the way from McMurdo to South Pole to provide the station with liquid power for the winter.
There obviously is no paved road to Pole - so the Traverse has to make its way through more than 1600 km of ice and snow. The first vehicle in the caravane carries a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to detect the many crevasses in the glacier, which can be fatal to mission and life.
The journey of the Traverse takes about three weeks with 12 hours of driving every day. Our 10 heroes have to spent their leisure time in very close quarters: There is a cargo-container sized module for sleeping, and another one that servers as kitchen and bathroom.
A lot of people that follow my blog requested images of station interior - and I take fan mail very seriously! So today's journal entry is about one of the most important places inside Amundsen-Scott South Pole station: The power plant.
Normally, people are not allowed in the power plant unless they are staff or have some serious business to do there - and my business is pretty serious! As a member of South Pole Station fire brigade, I need to know every last corner of the station in my sleep, especially the power plant as a fire-hazardous area. So Rob, our fire brigade team lead, gave us a tour: South Pole Station entirely depends on jet fuel which is brought here by plane and the South Pole Traverses. Below you can see the "fuel bladders" that are towed all the way from McMurdo to South Pole on a sled! At Pole, the fuel is stored in gigantic cylinders in the fuel arch, and converted into power and heat by four bigass yellow engines. Those are supposed not to catch on fire - but IF shit would hit the fan, there is an emergency power plant on the other side of the station, which could keep the winterovers alive for the rest of the year. Let's hope that won't be necessary...
Speaking of fuel: Since last week, I am a proud member of the winterover fuelie team! Together with Rob, who is also one of our research associates (RAs) besides fire team lead, and Justin, our facilities engineer, I am responsible for fueling the last plane that leaves Pole (because the summer fuelies will be on it), and the first plane that gets here next year. The job also includes testing our fuel for sediments and water; it might get used to refuel some of the aircrafts during the summer. The most awesome part of the job though: Marshalling the last Herc. Isn't that exciting?! I've been studying marshalling signs all month! :)
Sometimes even I need a break from everything, so today I ventured out to the berms - a huge, mysterious area near the station where all the forgotten and lost things of Antarctica end up. It stretches out for miles - and it's the only place at South Pole where you can ever truly be alone.
If you take a close enough look, you find all kinds of interesting items out here, most of them half or completely buried beneath the snow. And if you're not careful, you will find yourself in one of the many crevasses that open up between pieces of furniture, cable spools, Christmas trees and scrap metal, and you will eventually become a forgotten piece of South Pole history as well. Luckily, this tragic fate passed me by, so I could continue my lone Sunday afternoon roam through this peaceful, yet nostalgic little world of its own. Whenever things trouble me or I am feeling sad, I come out here to regain perspective. It reminds me where I am: South Pole, the bottom of the world.
Science Facts #3 Askaryan Radio Array (ARA)
The Askaryan Radio Arrary ... pardon me, the Askaryan Radio ARRAY is a sister project of IceCube. Like the Cube, it is also looking for high energy Neutrinos, but instead of optical sensors it utilizes radio antennas to detect our favorite particles. The measurement principle of ARA is based upon the Askaryan effect, which describes the generation of charge anisotropies in bulk media (such as ice) caused by high-energy neutrino induced particle cascades. The anisotropy emits coherent radio waves which can be detected by the ARA antennas.
At the end of this summer season, the experiment will consist of six stations with four holes each, where every hole is holding 4 antennas. Once completed, ARA will cover an area far bigger than IceCube, although with a far smaller detector density. It's neutrino detection sweetspot is at energies even higher than IceCube's, which makes it an important addition to the South Pole Neutrino Club.
Man, am I glad I brought my big bear mittens with me! With one hand I am shielding my face from the ice cold wind, with the other I try to keep the camera warm that is sitting in it's case on my lab. The snowmobile is speeding with 30 miles an hour through the icy desert that lies beyond the perimeter of South Pole Station. The ARA (Askaryan Radio Array) drill camp is out here - and that is where I am going today.
It is a long snowmobile ride, almost 25 minutes - especially when the wind is blowing like it is today. I can see the camp in the distance, although I can barely make out a couple of rectangular shapes that are reflecting the sunlight near the horizon. The way to the camp is marked by green flags every 50 meters; I am watching them fly by one by one as I am pushing my snowmobile to its limits. It's a ton of fun, but the faster you go, the more unforgiving is the airstream that painfully reminds you of every single exposed millimeter of your skin.
Having reached the camp around 9 in the morning, I am welcomed by the drillers who already have been out here for hours. I am just in time to witness the genesis of a new ARA hole - the hot-water drill head is ready to carve it's way 200 meters deep into the Antarctic ice cap. I am not here to help with drilling though, but with deploying the first ARA string at this drill site, which is also super interesting - and most of all warm, because they set up a little shack around the hole that has already been completed earlier this week. The little hut is pretty packed with us six people, and I am trying my very best not to stand in the way and being as ingenious as possible. It's a big honor for me to be here - Since I wasn't there for IceCube drilling back in the construction days, the ARA people were so nice to let me come out here today to have a look and help out a little. Very slowly the ARA string is lowered into the icy darkness beneath our feet. Four very sensitive radio antennas are about to be buried forever - together with one or two sharpies that someone might have accidentally dropped into the hole. Totally not my fault.
Lucky as I am, ARA is not the only super-exciting thing I got to witness today. In the pictures above you can see the awesome cloud formation I spotted on my way back to station. It almost looks like snow is falling at South Pole! I showed these pictures to the meteorology department - according to them, snow showers are not supposed to happen here ever, but they could not come up with a better explanation for the phenomenon. A Christmas miracle!
Ice Facts #7 South Pole weather
Gather 'round folks, it's time to talk about the weather. Well, actually there's not much to say except that it's cold as f*ck. Anyway, here we differentiate between two different kinds of cold-as-f*ck: The actual temperature and the windchill. The first one tells the temperature as it is taken by the outside thermometers; the latter tells you how it actually feels like when you go outside and stand in the wind. Those two can have veeeery different values sometimes! In summer, the (actual) temperature does not climb higher than -20 °C; in winter, it can drop down to almost -80 °C! The daily weather board, one of which you can see below, also tells you the current "experienced" altitude calculated from the air pressure. This sometimes goes up to 10,800 ft, compared to the "actual" 9,301 ft. And believe me, you can really feel the difference when working out in the gym and the extra air you need is JUST NOT THERE. Phew.
The humidity at South Pole is absolute 0 - always, everywhere. Except in the greenhouse and sometimes the sauna, which makes these rooms very frequently visited places on station. Some people, including me, have their own humidifiers in their rooms, but due to the constantly running air conditioning they don't work really well except when you seal your vents shut (which you are very much not supposed to) or let the humidifier blow directly in your face when you're asleep. It sometimes helps to air-dry your laundry on the clothesline in your room - it will drip dry in notime and adds a little bit of water to the air for at least a few hours.
"Attention South Pole Station, attention South Pole Station! This is Comms wishing everybody a Merry Christmas!"
Yes, it's Christmas at South Pole! I can't believe I have been here for 55 days now - the weeks go by so fast when you are having the time of your life. Here's a little bit on how to celebrate the southernmost Christmas in the world: First of all, a white Christmas is not a thing to be worried about here. Also I can say with at least 100% certainty that Easter, Halloween and my birthday will be white, too! On the other hand, we are missing a bunch of other christmassy things here; like candles (fire hazard), open fire places (guess what hazard), real Christmas trees (contamination hazard), and a relaxed attitude towards eating raw cookie dough (after being publicly shamed for cross-contaminating the gluten-free cookie dough with the dairy-free ginger bread cookie cutter, they made me stand in the corner where I had nothing else to do but snitching dough, so they eventually kicked me out of the galley. Pff). However, the one thing everybody, including myself, is missing the most around this time of year is their families and loved ones. I love you Mom & Dad (I promise to watch "Little Lord Fauntleroy" while getting drunk on Glüwein on the sofa like we always do :))!
South Pole population has it's own little old and new traditions, though. Besides an A-MAZ-ING Christmas Eve dinner, we sang carols in Comms with McMurdo station, Shackleton field camp and WAIS Divide field camp over radio. We even had a little handmade-Secret-Santa ("Wichteln" for my German-speaking friends) going on! The ARFF (Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting) guys organised a little afternoon-Christmas party for us on the 23th (pardon me, 23rd), and we had another one in the gym on the 24th. In the middle of the night before Christmas, someone had the glorious idea to transform the big pile of snowdrift behind the station into a gigantic sledding slope. It was actually a lot steeper than it looks on the pictures; it's a Christmas miracle that nobody NPQ'd (aka physically disqualified themselves from the program) that night...
Another highlight of Christmas celebrations at South Pole is the "Race around the World": 2.27 miles across all time zones of Earth, be it on foot, with skies, in a handcrafted cardboard sled, in a pink bunny costume on a unicycle or on top the party-barge towed by a bulldozer - everybody can participate. Only the runners are competing though; and the price for the fastest male and female finisher were 10 extra shower minutes to use at their convenience (not necessarily together)! Stupidest Christmas present ever, you think? Well, if you live at a place where you're allowed to take two two-minute showers per week only (to save water and energy), shower minutes pretty quickly develop to be the new inofficial currency, which can be traded for all kinds of candy on the South Pole black market. And now guess who won the race as South Pole's fastest woman? :)
With this in mind, I wish all of you a jolly little holiday time. For my friends and family at home: I've never missed you more than now at the Christmas holidays; reminding me of the coziness and comfort of your company. But know that I have found a new makeshift little family here at South Pole, consisting of wonderful and amazing people I can count on at all times, and who are there for me whenever I get homesick. I love you guys! Merry Christmas.
PS: So far I have charged my cellphone twice since I got here. TWICE. No kidding.
Ice Facts #8 South Pole markers
There are two South Pole markers near Amundsen Scott South Pole Station. One is the ceremonial Pole marker, which moves along with the glacier and therefore remains at it's place relative to the station at all times. It is surrounded by 12 flags representing the founding members of the Antarctic Treaty: South Africa, Belgium, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, the USA, Norway, New Zealand, Russia, Chile, Australia, and Argentina. Since it is the sexier of the two Pole markers, it is more commonly seen in pictures. The other marker, as you've probably correctly guessed, is the geographic South Pole marker, which marks the actual geographic South Pole. Since the glacier moves away beneath it, its position has to be re-calculated every year. The marker is replaced by a new design and moved to its new location every January 1st in a big ceremony. The old marker goes into a little marker museum here on station, where it remains for all future generations of Polies to see. Usually, all winterovers sign their season's marker, so that their names remain a part of South Pole forever.
Both markers used to be right next to each other; but due to the constant moving of the ice cap, their current distance is about a 100 m.
The turn of the year is kinda arbitrary here, since all time zones of Earth come together at South Pole. Nonetheless, since Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station runs on New Zealand time, we celebrate New Year's Eve at UTC +13. Yes, we are a day ahead of most of you guys!
New Year's Eve party was held in the big gym. No need to go outside, since we are not allowed to burn any fireworks (which would probably not be very impressive in bright sunlight anyway). You think New Year's is boring without burning or melting stuff? Not at all! Two very special guests made an appearance that totally made up for not being able to play with flammables. One is the ancient, all-knowing Trotterdamus, who would tell you your 2018 fortune at almost no cost (but your soul, dohh). The other is the mysterious inflatable T-Rex, who makes unpredictable appearances every once in a while - no one knows when and where it will happen, and no one knows who he is in the real world. Some things are just meant to remain a mystery forever.
South Pole Station is built on a gigantic glacier, which sloooowy makes its way towards the coast of Antarctica - about a couple of meters every year. That means it is moving away from the geographic South Pole inch by inch. As demanded by yearlong tradition, the geographic South Pole marker is relocated to it's new position relative to the station every January 1st. This is done in a big ceremony to which everybody is invited - not only station population, but everyone on site; including tourists camping out in the nearby tourist camp. The marker is not only moved, but also replaced by a new design every year. Martin Wolf, one of last season's IceCube winterovers, came up with this year's design, and it's pretty awesome!
There is a lot of exciting things going on at South Pole, I learn new things and make new friends every single day. But today, something so breathtakingly beautiful happened that reminded me why I really wanted to come down here in the first place: To watch the sky. Today I got to be the proud witness of a display that reveals itself only once, maybe twice a year, and only at a handful of the coldest of all places around the world.
What you can see in the photos (that I took with my new wide-angle lens that came in with the mail after Christmas) is a combination of rare atmospheric halos, produced by ice crystals in Earth's upper atmosphere that reflect the sunlight in a very special way. Let's dig into this a little bit with the help of a book I found in the meteorology department; Atmospheric Halos by Walter Tape. The most basic sundogs - or parhelia - are formed by plate crystals as shown in the figure above. Although the crystals have very different orientations, the refracted rays of light behind them are nearly parallel, so that we see a concentration of light in the opposite direction. The more fancy halos are formed in a similar way by differently shaped crystals. The photos I took show two parhelia, a 22 ° and 46 ° halo, the upper tangent arc, the supralateral and circumzenith arcs, infralateral arcs and my favorite, the parthelic circle, which at one point during the show went aaaaall the way around the sky. Crucial for this kind of display is the number and size of the ice crystals, their orientation and alignment, and the density of the crystal cloud. All these factors have to work together perfectly - that's why these halos are so incredibly rare!
In order to take decent photographs of such solar phenomenons, you need to block off the sun itself - otherwise its brightness would overshine everything else. In my case, I used human sunblocks which turned out to work pretty well ;).
Information and drawings taken from:
 Walter Tape: Atmospheric Halos, American Geophysical Union, Washington D.C., 1994.
If you know me, you know my love for science and the joy I find in explaining things (which I tried above). And I don't think science diminishes the beauty of the moment at all - but this day again reminded me to take off science's safety goggles every once in a while, and to just sit there unspoiled, watch, and humbly appreciate the rare moments mother nature shares such gems with her children.
I went on a 7-day vacation to McMurdo! Nothing to report, all I did was hanging out in our dorm eating pizza for a week. Also the occasional shower-beer.
... Just kidding! :D
Although I have done the above things in a certainly unhealthy extent, I did go on a bunch of awesome adventures with my South Pole friends Luis, Tony, Ta-Lee and Cherisa; of which I want to narrate in this week's journal entry. R&R stands for Rest and Recuperation and is basically a little beach vacation at the coast of Antarctica granted to everybody who winters at South Pole, as their last chance to see something else than the sterile interiour of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and the big white nothingness it sits in. The destination of choice (or not-choice) is McMurdo Station - if you were following my blog for a while, you know I've already spend a couple of days there since it's the transit harbour for everybody on their way to Pole.
McMurdo Station in the summer time has everything you can possibly wish for when you just spent over 2 months at South Pole: A set of equally crazy, but different faces, a sea-level air pressure so you can actually hike without passing out, humidity, fauna, 24/7 pizza, and HUMIDITY. Also your face doesn't hurt when you go outside; the temperatures sometimes reach to a few degrees above freezing here! If you compare the above picture to the one I took in October, you can see that most of the snow in town has made way for a brownish-red combination of dirt and volcano ashes. How refreshing!
Speaking of fauna: There are actual living animals at the coast of Antarctica; and I am not talking about that poor little moth they once found in a box of broccoli. See the photos below for all the species we encountered! :) You might think penguins are a natural thing to be around in Antarctica, but at this time of year, when the sea ice is not completely broken up yet, you actually have to be pretty lucky to see them! So I am particularly proud of the picture on the right: Ta-Lee and I spotted 10 Adelie penguins on the sea ice in Winter Quarters Bay that wandered off pretty soon after we arrived, to mess with the seals you can see chillin' on their lazy butts in the background. For all the winterovers who did not get to see them: Don't be too sad; when penguins walk around on land, they are pretty much just drunk human adults, of which you can find one or two in McMurdo without having to go out to the ice shelf.
Visiting McMurdo is not only worth it for stalking wildlife, though. You can go on plenty of beautfiul hikes in the area - because in contrast to the plain white oblivion of South Pole, the coast has some actual landscape going on. Together with my R&R crew and fellow IceCuber Matt, I ventured to climb the famous mesa of Castle Rock - quite an advanced hike, but the view from up there is so breathtakingly beautiful, it makes you forget that you are sweating and freezing at the same time. Almost six hours full of amazing sceneries (some of which part of some serious bonding experiences) we spent hiking the icy wilderness of Ross Island; quietly shadowed by the magestic Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth.
Wait what? Active volcano?? ... Calm down. Erebus has an open lava lake at its top, which means enough pressure in form of little eruptions is released every now and then to prevent a massive eruption of enough power to wipe out Winter Quarters Bay. So no need to evacuate McMurdo Station any time soon. ;)
McMurdo is a crowded place: Almost 800 people at this time of year (in contrast to about 150 at Pole)! Most of them live in two- or four-bed dorm rooms, which makes it feel a little bit like a school trip (thanks Cherisa for being such an awesome room mate!). Although that's a little scary at first, a big population comes with conveniences like a barber shop, a coffee house, bars, a variety of community activities, even a radio station! R&R people from South Pole seem to be a big hit in McMurdo - we got shout-outs on IceRadio at least four times! DJ Dennis, if you read this: You're awesome! :D If you want to get away from the crowd, Hut Point right outside of town is the spot of choice. Not only does it feature a great view over Winter Quarters Bay, it's also home of Scott's Hut: An exact replica of the shelter that was built for Scott's expedition over a 100 years ago. Most of the exhibits in there are originals!
The ice breaker arrived in McMurdo this week. Very soon, the sea ice will be broken up completely, the bay will be alive with all kinds of sea animals, and the big cargo vessel will dock in McMurdo - the busiest time of the season. I will not be there to witness this; by the time hell breaks loose in McTown, I will be snuggled up in my own cozy, tiny set of walls, at the place I call home now - South Pole.
Ice Facts #9 Skua
skuˑa /'skyo͡oə/, noun: A large brownish predatory seabird related to the gulls, pursuing other birds to make them disgorge fish they have caught. [Google Dictionary]
skuˑa /'skyo͡oə/, noun: An abstract phenomenon describing the donation and repossession of everyday items predominantly on research stations in Antarctica; as well as the site of its implementation. [Poptart's Dictionary of Amusing and Inappropriate American Colloquial]
Or, let me put this differently: If you have stuff you don't want anymore or you have to get rid of excess luggage for your way home, you put it in Skua. Be it an old towel, an open box of Ibuprofen, smelly sportswear or that tacky multicolored chain of Christmas lights that someone installed in your room before you moved in - Skua takes it all. At Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Skua is a little shack right outside the side entrance, where people put their old stuff for happy finders to take. And this system works - it works so extraordinarily good, that some bold summer people come down here without any extra clothes of their own, with Skua as their wardrobe for the entire stay.
Skua got its name from the famous Antarctic seabird, which is known for its tendency to 'borrow' food from other animals or unsuspecting residents of McMurdo Station who dare to step outside with a tray full of pizza and Frosty Boy.
I want to dedicate this week's journal entry to my IceCube team at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität (WWU) in Münster, who helped me so much in fulfilling my dream of going to the South Pole. You guys rock!
Before I came here, I worked on the mDOM, the Multi-PMT Digital Optical Module for the future IceCube-Gen2 experiment, together with the guys from AG Kappes which was newly founded in 2016 and soon developed to be the best work group in the world! Those guys made me the most awesome going-away gift: A calendar with a page for every month I'll be here, each holding a picture of them re-enacting a funny scene from all my favorite movies. Maybe I'll share some of those with you over the next months! :D
You thought South Pole was a place most hostile to life in every way? Not at all! After all those McMurdo wildlife pictures I showed you earlier last month, I think it's time now to present what Pole has to offer. Because if you look close enough, you find all kinds of fauna lurking and creeping in and around South Pole Station. This journal entry is dedicated to the creatures that only those with a keen eye can see.
Admittedly, most of the animals found here are most likely not native to South Pole. Allan the sock monkey, for example, is believed to live a nomadic life with the Traverse people. Legend says that the sturgeon in the ice tunnels is originally from Russia, and the creepy monkey in the office obviously crashed its UFO at South Pole at some point. The T-Rex magically showed up this very season, and nobody knows who is behind his sudden appearance (chrmchrrm, Zane). There also is one species that visits South Pole quite frequently, and in contrast to all the other creatures, you don't have to try hard to find it - in fact, sometimes it's really difficult NOT to run into at least one specimen of this kind on your way from the lab to the bathroom: Tourists. They come back every summer season when it apparently gets so hot in the Northern hemisphere, that it's worth about 75 grant to breathe ice-cold South Pole air for literally one day. Anyways, occasionally you get to meet a famous person in Amundsen-Scott's hallways (because those are usually the ones with that kind of money).
The story behind the sturgeon in the ice tunnels has as many versions as there are people telling it, and every single one of them is probably true. So far, I think this is what happened: A long, long time ago, the Russian station Vostok located at about 72° South on the Antarctic Plateau, presented the sturgeon to McMurdo station as a gift. The McTownies, suspicious as they are, did not dare to eat it - so it ended up in one of their cold storage buildings where it slept for years and years. But then, one lucky day, a McMurdo supply worker found it and thought it was funny to guard-mail it down to South Pole station in one of the last aircrafts of the season, so that the Polies would not have a chance to send it back. After all those years the poor fish did not meet the galley safety standards any more, so that season's winterovers decided to honor it's endurances with the highest (or lowest) of all graves: A shrine in the ice tunnels.
Science Facts #4 The IceCube Laboratory
I guess it's about time to talk about my actual job a little bit again. But before I tell you what exactly it is that I do (because I like messing with people who keep asking me that exact question ;)), let me show you my workspace! The IceCube Laboratory, or short ICL, is located in the Dark Sector (I know, right?!) about a kilometer away from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. It marks the center point of the IceCube detector which is buried under 1.5 km of ice. All the hundreds of miles of cables that IceCube consists of come together in this little building. Those arm-thick cables enter the ICL through the two large cable towers you can see in the picture above, and are split up inside into smaller red quad cables which each are connected to four DOMs deep down in the ice; their other ends are connected to the DOMHubs, custom-made computers that feed high voltage to the sensors and read their data in return. We've got 97 of those! All the other machines (we've got a total of about 200!) are data processing or infrastructure machines, that means they filter and pre-analyse the data, they host important resources like repositories, mail accounts, or the detector monitoring system, or are responsible for the Iridium connection that lets the winterovers communicate with the North during satellite outages.
So yes, the essence of IceCube is housed in the little blue building in the middle of nowhere - it's cozy, and the noise of all the machines has a somewhat soothing effect on me by now. The dog house, the little blue cube on the roof, is a perfect get-away when you need a break from life on station. I'd spend way more time out there, if the ICL would feature a bathroom with running water...
Fun fact: The ICL is the only building at South Pole that has to be actively cooled. For that purpose the outside air is sucked in, heated up (yes, we're at the South Pole), and blown into the server room. If the air conditioning shuts down for only 20 minutes, the exhaust heat of our computers heats the server room up to almost 60° C - which can be fatal for all kinds of expensive equipment in there! That's why we monitor the temperature very closely with dozens of sensors.
Fighting the immediate urge to stumble backwards, I wave my arms towards the approaching monstrum in front of me, signalling it to keep going, as I try to hold my current position just a little longer. The spinning propellers could easily atomize a snowmobile, not to mention a tiny fuelie in a big red. I can feel the low BRRRRRRRRMMMMMMM of the throttling engines in my stomach as I draw a big X in the air, signalling the pilot to halt.
"Comms comms, this is flight deck: Skier 93 is parked in fuel pit one!"
I am pressing the headphones against my ears as I yell the words into my radio, over the sound of the four idling rotors of the LC-130 that is now sitting no 20 meters away from me in the fuel pit. The ice-cold wind that is blowing in my face does not make it easier to write down the Hercule's arrival time in the log book. Now: Get the nozzle, connect it to the hose, grab the bonding cable and wait for the loadmaster to wave you over! I've done this a dozen times, but I am still repeating the steps in my head to not forget anything. As the Air Guard officer finally gives me the sign, I start walking slowly towards him; the bonding cable in my one hand and the nozzle with the green hose over my shoulder. This is the most exciting part, but at the same time very exhausting and sort of horrifying - the hose is heavy and awkward as shit, and hauling it under the Herc's wing, where the propellers blow their exhaust directly in your face, is really scary. Although admittedly, I might be a few inches too short to actually get decapitated by the spinning razor blades, but god knows I'm not gonna take my chances with this one!
And now we wait. Pumping 3000 gallons of fuel off a Hercules takes quite some time, in which you merely stand on the windy flight deck to wait for the loadmaster's hand signals, and to overlook the situation - a leaky pipe or spill during the procedure can have devastating consequences!
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station relies on the tanker flights - most our fuel get's here with the overland Traverse, but nowhere near all of it. Now, towards the end of the summer season, we get up to five Hercules full of AN-8 every 24 hours - and my fellow fuelie Justin and I have been working the night shifts in the last couple of weeks. My pocket watch says: Almost 3 in the morning. Sunlight is reflecting off the aircraft's cockpit windows.
"Comms comms, this is fuels: Skier 93 is preparing to taxi. Total gallons received is 2907. Again: 2-9-0-7. Do you copy?"
Finally, the last tanker of the day is successfully defueled and about to depart South Pole Station airfield. Tired and kind of sore I am falling on the couch in the fuel barn - also called the fuel chapel, where we are gonna celebrate the nearing end of the summer fueling season tomorrow. The Tanker Toast is a tradition among the McMurdo fuelies, and was adapted at South Pole as the Tanker Flight Toast - in which the fuels chapel gets doused with Champagne.
I've been a lot more involved in fuels activities than I expected. When I first volunteered for the job, I thought I was gonna marshall the last Herc and test a fuel sample every now and then - and look where I am now! I fueled and defueled over 20 aircrafts, did tank transfers, helped with offloading the Traverse, and became winter fuels team lead! It's a lot of work, but I am incredibly happy about this opportunity - where else in the world would I ever have the chance of doing all that? I love South Pole!
Ice Facts #10 The Run to McMurdo
The distance from South Pole to McMurdo is 835 miles, measured on the way of the Traverse. The Run to McMurdo challenges you to cover this distance within the 9 winter months - virtually on the treadmill, the stationary bike, on skies, the unicycle or whatever weird form of mobility you can come up with.
Now the fun part. I have a little bet going with our research associate Ta-Lee: Whoever makes it to McMurdo first, gets to dress the other person for a week. Yes, FOR A WHOLE WEEK. Everything faster than 5 miles per hour on the treadmill counts.
By the way, running at 3300 m elevation and zero humidity is a lot harder than you think. The extra air you need for exercise: Just not there.
"Comms, comms, this is flight deck: Otter CKB is off deck. Again: Charlie-Kilo-Bravo is off deck!"
That's it. We're alone. The last aircraft of the season, a Twinotter on its way home to Canada, departed Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station airfield. We sent them off with 700 gallons of jet fuel and a doggie bag full of cookies - hoping for them not to return for the next nine months. Because if they would, that would mean we're in big trouble.
South Pole is isolated for the winter season which lasts from Mid-February till beginning of November. During this time, nobody can get here, and nobody can leave. Period. However, it happened a few times in the past that someone on station was diagnosed with a bad-enough condition so that they had to be "med-evac'd" (evacuated for medical reasons). That's an endeavour that not only costs a fortune, but also takes several weeks, depends on perfect weather conditions, and requires everybody on station to work together flawlessly - and there is no guarantee for success. But don't worry: Every winterover underwent very thourough medical screenings prior to deployment to make the event of a med-evac as unlikely as possible. Also, we have a very capable crew in the sickbay - I trust my life to our doctor Malcolm and his assistant Brent.
Rather than the fear of getting sick, there is another paranoia that has been spreading among the 40 winterovers lately: Rumor has it that The Thing is back on station - an ancient alien creature that has been waiting for its awakening in the ice; to infect, imitate, and kill the station population. Slowly, silently. One by one. Luckily, we still have 24 hours of sunlight every day, which keeps the my-fellow-winterover-is-possessed-by-alien-parasites-panic down a little. For now.
Station Closing comes with another important event: The start of the Run to McMurdo, which is explained below. You can keep track of my progress in all my posts from now on. Run Raffi run!
The moon is up! For those who never thought about it or missed Robert Schwarz's last Tuesday's astronomy class: Here, the moon is down for two weeks and then up for two weeks in a row, and it's really pretty in South Pole's clear air - except when it's not. Winter comes with more frequent whiteouts, and temperatures have been dropping significantly lately. -100° F (-73° C) with windchill are not uncommon any more.
As working outside becomes more uncomfortable with every day closer to sunset, the winterovers try to make their station as cozy as possible. The galley is now basically a big lounge, people started to put up hammocks in the B2 science lab, and Carhardt overalls are slowly but steady swapped for pyjama pants. Most outside activities, like frozen kickball and frisbee golf, are replaced by Trivia nights and station-wide games of Assassins and Werewolf, where a mysterious murderer - or "Thingatourwolf" - kills a person every night and watches people turn on each other in oblivion as population is slowly shrinking. Fun times.
To understand what's going on in this week's science facts, you need the following vocabulary:
Solstices happen twice a year; they are defined as the days the sun reaches it's respectively highest (in the summer) or lowest (in the winter) altitudes in the sky.
Equinoxes are the two days of the year when day and night are of exactly the same length. At the poles, the equinoxes are the moments of sunrise and sunset.
Earth's rotation axis is tilted about 23.5° relative to the perpendicular to its plane of movement around the sun. That's the reason for seasons on our planet! It's also the reason for night and day at South Pole - if the axis wasn't tilted, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station would be at the edge of dawn year round. But because things are how they are, we get one long day and one long night. The ostensible movement of the sun across the South Pole sky is illustrated in the picture below: It basically draws big circles seemingly without change in altitude every "day", with those circles slowly moving towards or away from the horizon. The sun's highest point in the sky is at summer solstice and measures 23.5° from the horizon, which equals the tilt of Earth's rotation axis - makes sense, doesn't it? It's hard to wrap your head around it at first, but maybe it helps to look at how the sun "moves" right at the equator: It rises and sets exactly perpendicular to the horizon every day of the year, with its highest altitude at the zenith straight above your head on the equinoxes, and its lowest altitude about 66.5° (= 90° - 23.5°) either from the north or south horizon on the solstices.
The polar day therefore is equivalent to the polar summer, as the polar night is to the polar winter. The nicest consequence of all this: Sunrise and sunset both seem to take about a week! If the weather is not shitty (which it might be according to our meteorologist Janelle) I'll show you some awesome photos next week.
Fun fact: The average time of daylight per 24 hours is exactly 12 hours for EVERY place on Earth, even the Poles. It makes sense if you think about it! :)
Last time I told you about what the moon is up to - I figured this time you might be interested in what the sun is doing at South Pole right now. And let me tell you, it's all kinds of shenanigans! Official equinox is next Wednesday, around 5 am local time. That means the sun is pretty low already, and it's noticeably darker around here. Sunset comes with all kinds of pretty sights, and I started to drag my camera around with me wherever I go. And that's rewarded with some pretty neat shots! These are my favorites :)
If you're curious about how the sun works here at South Pole: I picked a few things up in Robert Schwarz's last week's astronomy class. Click this: Science facts #5.
Over the course of the last months, I was being introduced to all kinds of American culture. By now I think it's fair to say that most of it is about food and booze - like in every other country. And the Americans have a special history in deep-frying things. All kinds of things. If, however, a particular holiday does not, for some reason, dictate the consumption of deep-fried food, they come up with other sorts of crazy things, like brutally over-sugared beverages, hopelessly over-frosted cake or a ridiculous-inflationary usage of food dye. But don't get me wrong - I love it! Except maybe the sugary drinks, I really can't warm up to that stuff. Burghs.
Anyways, Saint Patrick's Day is no exception. I've never had green beer ever before in my life - and now I know why! :D In our bartender's defence: They did not have particularly great beer to begin with, so dying it green wasn't gonna make it A LOT worse.
It may sound like I am making fun of my American friends - and that's absolutely not wrong. But only because I love them so much! :) Honestly I think Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station has not seen a winterover crew like this ever before. Everyone knows wintering at South Pole is my dream - but this particular bunch of crazy individuals makes it so much better than I expected! Speaking of great people: Our machinist Steele (oh yes, that's really his name) made me the most awesome mute for my fiddle! I started self-learning last Wednesday, and ever since I was horribly afraid of being lynched by basically everybody who lives in B1 (if that actually happens, the suspects are Travis, Ta-Lee, and Josh). But now that I have my mute I can safely practice in my room whenever I want. Sadly I wasn't able to perform at Paddie's Day, but be prepared for a big concert at Midwinter! Tickets are free!
Sometimes, when all hope seems to be lost, a single sunbeam can restore a winterover's faith in the universe. Literally. The few days after winter equinox at South Pole are said to be the prettiest - unless they are shadowed by the biggest snow storm of the season so far. Wind speeds of 36 knots mean instant frostbite to any tiny little patch of exposed skin; they also mean zero visibility due to blowing ice crystals everywhere. Normally, I like this kind of weather, when you can not tell the difference between right and left, up and down; and the Japanese flag at the Ceremonial Pole marker appears as a single red dot floating in the air. But this week, I very much don't like to be in a "giant pingpong ball" as our meteorologists call it. It's the week of sunset, and that's really not something you want to miss. After all, it's gonna be the first and last for my entire stay here.
So yeah, of course the weather was shitty during the entire week. The storm raged non-stop for five days after the winter equinox, so everybody basically gave up hope on seeing the sunset. The sun is visible at Pole for several days AFTER it set - or rather it's reflection in the atmosphere, so you can not really predict when the sun will be visible for the last time. Also, if you're lucky, you can witness a phenomena called the green flash - a line of green light right above the setting sun generated by refraction in the atmosphere, usually visible for a glimpse of a second if at all, but which at South Pole can last for several minutes or even hours. Anyways, after five days, it was pretty unlikely that the sun would show up again even if the sky would clear up. Which it, in fact, did. I woke up on Sunday morning to the most beautiful play of colors across the sky - the pictures you can see below don't come even close.
So I grabbed my camera and my ECW and basically spent the whole morning outside, once again realizing that coming down here was the rightest decision I've ever made. Just sitting there and enjoying the breathtakingly beautiful display - until I frostnipped my butt. Again. Totally worth it.
All disappointment about our "short" sunset immediately vanished upon being seated to the most amazing South Pole Sunset Dinner. A fantastic seven-course meal, prepared by the best galley crew ever, accompanied by a selection of our finest wines, totally made up for everything spectacular that we might have missed out on. After all, we will get another chance - at sunrise in eight months.
The area around Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is divided into a bunch of sectors; a few of them you can see in the picture on the right. Those sectors are mostly for protecting the science experiments that are going on down here.
The Dark Sector is home of the IceCube Laboratory (ICL), the Dark Sector Laboratory (DSL) which hosts the South Pole Telescope and BICEP, and the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO) building which hosts the KECK experiment. In terms of visible light, the Dark Sector is as dark as any other sector - in terms of other frequencies, however, special rules apply to this sector to avoid interference with the very sensitive experiments. For example, your radio has to be off at all times, your phone has to be in airplane mode, and all bluetooth and WIFI devices should better be left at home. You are allowed to use your radio in case of an emergency, of course.
The Clean Air Sector is home of the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), which is where the two NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) winterovers spend most of their time. As the name implies, the air in that sector is the cleanest on Earth. The air is pretty neat at South Pole in general, but the wind usually blows from ARO's direction which prevents exhaust from the station or vehicles to drift over NOAA's sensitive atmosphere experiments. Also, please don't fart when you're out there.
Deep underneath the ice sheet, there are buried some seismic detectors which are part of the South Pole Remote Earth Science Observatory (SPRESO) in the Quiet Sector. They monitor shockwaves in our planet, like earthquakes or nuclear explosions. They even detect the slightest vibrations on the surface of South Pole, which is why vehicles are prohibited in this sector.
All the aircrafts usually land in the Downwind Sector (if they don't overshoot the skiway for thousands of feet, chrmmchrm :D). In the winter, not a lot happens here, except the occasional meteorology balloon launch.
There's nothing more uncomfortable than not seeing the ground beneath your feet. The twilight we are experiencing right now is still bright enough to see distinct shapes like flags and buildings, but small shadows cast by minor snow drifts - not a chance. So the ground looks perfectly plane and smooth, which it is, of course, not. On my way to the Dark Sector the other day I ate it at least five times, including rolling down the slope that surrounds the MAPO building which started way earlier than I expected. The only advantage of the low light conditions: Nobody can see you falling on your stupid face :D
What was I doing at MAPO anyway? Robert Schwarz, who is doing his 14th (!) winter at South Pole and basically lives at MAPO, has offered to help me with my photography equipment, so I gathered all my gear and ventured out there. Even though all that stuff costs a fortune and is high-end technology, it is in no way whatsoever designed to be used in -70 °C. Plastic and rubber parts crumble upon the slightest touch, cables break like uncooked spagetthi, and the grease that is supposed to smoothen the moveable parts of your tripod "turnes into super glue", as Robert calls it, within seconds. Also, the LCD freezes after a few minutes, but unfortunately there's really not a lot you can do about that. So together we replaced the grease in my tripod and swapped the plastic cable of my remote shutter for a Teflon cable. After all, I want to be prepared for the first auroras!
Another upside of visiting Robert at MAPO: He has all kinds of treats from home out there (he's from Germany, too)! Nothing compares to breathing in the fumes from your soldering iron while eating Rosinen-Marzipan-Stollen and listening to recorded Bayern3 radio. I also got to practice my German a little bit - I am shocked by how hard a time I have by now talking in my native tongue.
Oh I almost forgot: We had some lunar activity last week - if you paid attention earlier, you know that Earth's biggest satellite doesn't set for two weeks in a row at South Pole. The rise of the full moon last Sunday simply blew my mind away: It is huge! None of the pictures are photoshopped. South Pole keeps surprising me over and over again.
Anyways, thanks again Robert for the free telescope ride and for making South Pole feel a little bit more like home :)
On April 12th 1961, Yuri Gagarin's spacecraft completed an orbit around Earth which made him the first human ever in outer space. The anniversary of this event obviously has to be celebrated at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station! Robert organizes the party every year and invites the crew to dress up as spacey as possible - and people delivered! See for yourself in the picture above. We had a cosmonaut with a giant head, Space Trash, at least three Arthur Dents and a Space Wolf. And yes, I wore my Starfleet uniform with pride! I always do! Everybody who showed up without a costume got a brain slug smonched on their head. That's what you get for not dressing up.
Besides Yuri's Night, the whole week was all about cardboard. I helped Ta-Lee to unwrap the aurora cameras on the roof of the station - which officially heralds the aurora season, but also requires all station windows to be covered with wood or cardboard, so that the sensitive cameras are not disturbed by stray light. Since it's super lame to stare on plain cardboard for six months, people decorate the window covers. This season, in order to get rid of the old, torn-up covers that have been used for years, but also to keep people busy and happy, our station manager Marco organized a cover-art-contest: Whoever comes up with the nicest design, will have his or her next dishpit duty covered by Marco himself! We don't have a winner yet, but some of the submissions are shown in the picture below. Also, window covers are not the only thing you can make out of cardboard: Our supply specialist Steve gathered some minions to construct a gigantic T-Rex and put it up in the corner of the galley. Pretty impressive!
The first Aurora Australis of the year! At least the first ones I've been lucky enough to capture with my camera. People have been spotting auroras throughout the entire last week, but I always happened to be too slow or too busy to catch them. Today, my original plan was to get a photograph of the flare of IRIDIUM 81, but I got a lot more than I asked for. If you take a close look you see that there's so much stuff going on in that photo! (Fun fact: IRIDIUM satellites are not made out of iridium at all. The name comes from the initial plan to launch 77 of those satellites, where 77 is the atomic number of Iridium. Yes, that's the whole reason. Also, they ended up only launching 66 so they should be called Dysprosium satellites. I learned that in Robert's astronomy class!)
Remember when I went out to MAPO to winter-proof my camera equipment a couple of weeks ago? It came a long way since then! Over the last few days I've been crafting and optimizing a sweet windproof camera sleeve from scrap outdoor fabrics I found in the arts-and-crafts room. It has two layers of fleece, one layer of waterproof nylon and one layer of windproof fabric. And it works! It's shielding my equipment from the -90 °C winds long enough that I can take my time with finding the right spot, angle and settings and still take pictures for at least 30 minutes before the battery runs out and the LCD freezes - and that's way longer than my own hands last in the weather! And certainly long enough to take a few pictures like the one above.
Mileage: 217.30 - Over a quarter there already! I'm currently still 14 miles ahead of Ta-Lee, but he's catching up... Gotta watch out for my knees a little bit.
Ice Facts #12 Where the Internet comes from
To most people in the western world nowadays, communication is an abstract, invisible, self-evident matter of fact. The only time you notice it's there, is when it's not. And that happens a lot at South Pole.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is so remote from the rest of the world, that the only way of communication is - through space. Only downside: Most communication satellites don't fly over the poles, because nobody freakin' lives there :D So we are currently piggybacking on three different systems that barely touch the South Pole horizon: DSCS, Skynet, and SPTR2 (explained in the picture on the right). All three of them are visible for only a few hours each day, and provide very different bandwidths. DSCS is by far the nicest of the three, and the connection of choice for things like YouTube, Facebook, online banking, phone calls, etc. SPTR is okay-ish but requires a little bit of planning sometimes. It's super patchy and not very fast, but if you pre-cached all your websites on DSCS, you can still use them on SPTR. The network is also used to upload all the science data, including pretty IceCube events. Skynet (or "Sucknet" as the winterovers call it) provides barely enough bandwidth to ping the Google servers. It's slower than Christmas, but better than nothing (I guess). The overall daily satellite coverage is roughly 12 hours, with about 8 hours of actually usable bandwidth.
The station has a 24 hour Iridium coverage for emergencies - you technically CAN make a phonecall on the Iridium line, but it's not pretty. Email works.
What we really absolutely do not have is Wifi and cellphone reception. So guys, please stop whatsapping me, IT WON'T GET HERE :D
Our two satellite communication (satcom) engineers, Tony and Josh, track the different satellites with gigantic dishes in the so-called raydomes - the domes protect the equipment from wind and weather. Earlier this week, the guys took me out there to show me around. It's quite the walk, but totally worth it, especially if your way is lit up by the prettiest auroras!
The sun is now about 14.5° below the horizon (remember, it only goes as low as 23.5° as explained in Science facts #5), so it's finally dark enough to enjoy the auroras in their full glory, even with the naked eye. I get asked a lot if they actually look like in the photographs - nope, they don't. It's less bright and the colors are less obvious (I'll try to take a photo that comes close to what the human eye can see for my next report). But on the other hand, a camera will never be able to capture the magic that happens if you just lie there on the ice and enjoy the gigantic glowing ribbons that appear out of nowhere and are then gone forever, sometimes just to make way for an even more impressive light show. It's important to remind yourself that the world shouldn't always be observed through a camera lens.
But yeah, sometimes me and my beloved Sony Alpha 7II just get carried away. So today I'm just gonna show off a little bit - enjoy!
Mileage: 248.70 - Ta-Lee finally got me. But my feet and knees definitely needed a break. Man I miss running outside. Treadmills suck.
Another American holiday I didn't know was a thing: Cinco de Mayo! It's basically the same concept as St. Patrick's Day: A foreign nation's noble culture gets brutally reduced down to a few very stereotypical clothing items, and then everybody gets drunk. For some reason Cinco de Mayo is considered more offensive than it's Irish counterpart, so let me put together a little disclaimer just in case: We all had a ton of fun dressing up and decorating the lounge Mexican-style, had awesome Mexican food and just enjoyed the party - I very much hope nobody can find anything offensive in that; if there are any concerns with the contents of this journal entry please let me know.
The historical background of this holiday is the defeat of the French in Mexico some time ago, I don't really want to get into this. Fact is that for some weird reason we have a trizillion sombreros on station, and the 5th of May is the perfect day to get them all out. And to have home-made nachos and margaritas. Also, our supply specialist Steve (the guy with the cardboard T-Rex) made piñatas! In case you are not familiar with the concept: A piñata is a colorfully decorated cardboard structure resembling an animal, a geometric shape or in our case, a taco, which is usually filled with candy or some sort of treats. The lovingly designed object then gets beaten the shit out of by a blindfolded person with a baseball bat. Oh, Murica.
In case you wonder: No, it is not a terribly great idea to hand a baseball bat to a blindfolded adult that just had a margarita. But since we are all responsible human beings, the only incident was accidentally torn down paper decoration by our safety engineer Ted. Safety third, Teddy!
There's only two options for the day after a big celebration: Wake up hungover, have Aspirin dissolved in mayonnaise for breakfast, go back to bed and feel sorry for yourself. OR you wake up hungover, let Mikey put a fresh mint julep in your hand and embrace the party-afterglow by watching the Kentucky Derby over satellite in the galley!
Apparently the Kentucky Derby horse race is a biiiiig deal in the United States. And by big deal I mean it's another excuse for people to get drunk and spend money on stupid things - hell yeah! So we spent all Sunday morning in the galley, being lazy, having leftover-brunch, knitting, and watching the Derby on DSCS. It took me till noon to find out that the actual race is only about two minutes long, but of course the Americans make an all-day TV event out of it. The satellite connection was great, right to the point when the jockeys saddled up; and funny enough, we spent the entire race staring at a two-minute buffering screen. That's South Pole :D
Sundays at Pole are usually pretty chill. It's most folk's only day off, which creates a lazy vibe all over the station. It's a day for relaxing in the greenhouse or the sauna, playing video games, watching movies or taking a walk. Or finally catching up with blog entries you were too busy writing during the week...
-18°! Nope, that's not the temperature, but the altitude of the sun below the horizon. That means astronomical twilight is over, and it's finally really dark at South Pole. On a calm day, the Milky Way is clearly visible, and the auroras are brighter than ever. But remember I mentioned how we can not see the snow beneath our feet? Yes, that became a real problem now. We are not allowed to use flashlights because of the sensitive aurora cameras on the roof, and the red headlamps we carry do not help an awful lot. So I eat it at every little sastrugi on my way out to IceCube. Fortunately we wear so many layers that it's really hard to get hurt, and the heavy snow boots prevent lots of sprained ankles. Although I'm less worried about falling on my face, but about breaking my beloved camera which I almost always have with me...
But not for the next one and a half weeks! The moon is up again, and it's so bright that it casts distinct shadows on the ice - which makes life at Pole so much easier right now.
It's finally boring enough down here so that I can start writing about science. ... Nah just kidding, this is gonna be awesome! Because science is awesome! Science yeah! SCIENCE!
As you might know, I was hired as an astroparticle physicist to watch over the IceCube Neutrino Telescope here at South Pole. The name itself poses a bunch of questions already: What are neutrinos? How is IceCube a telescope? And why at the South Pole?!
Let's tackle the first question today and learn about neutrinos. They are very fascinating little guys, that live in the lepton family of the Standard Model of Particle Physics which is visualized on the right. The model holds all elementary (that means indivisible, unlike neutrons and protons or whole atoms) particles that we know of today: The quarks, which are the building blocks for protons and neutrons and therefore all matter we see around us. The gauge bosons, which are the carriers of the four fundamental forces - gravity, electro-magnetism, strong force and weak force. The recently discovered Higgs boson which "gives" mass to other elementary particles in the model. And the leptons, which are, among other things, defined over their 1/2-integer spin. For each quark and lepton, there exists an antiparticle with identical mass but opposite electrical charge.
The best known lepton is probably the electron, which per definition has an electric charge of -1 and can form atoms together with protons and neutrons. The muon and the tau are pretty much just heavier electrons. For each of these three there exists an uncharged counterpart, the electron-, muon- and tau-neutrino, represented by the greek letter υ. We know about them only since they were postulated by Wolfgang Pauli in 1930. Why? Because they're incredibly hard to find. Elementary particles are so tiny that we can only "see" them when they interact with things, like an electron being pushed around in a magnetic field. Neutrinos however do not take part in electro-magnetism, because they do not carry electric charge, unlike their lepton brothers. They only reveal themselves in interactions of the weak force, which - you could say - is the "rarest" of the forces (also pretty complicated, so let's cover that in a different session). "What about gravity?" you might ask. Well, technically you're right, but the neutrino masses are so incredibly small that gravity basically has no impact at all, at least not on a scale we could measure. Fun fact: According to the Standard Model, the neutrinos should be completely massless. Nowadays we know they actually do have tiny masses, although the exact values are still a mistery. Their property of being a pain in the butt to find, and the fact that we still do not know a lot about them, awarded the neutrinos the nickname Ghost Particles.
So why do we care about neutrinos? First of all, because they're there (which, for a physicst, is an absolutely sufficient but not necessarily required condition :D)! Second of all, they are considered ideal cosmic messengers. What does that mean? Well, neutrinos are not influenced by cosmic magnetic fields, neither are they likely to interact with anything like dust clouds or radiation - so they basically travel through space in a straight line unimpressed by whatever may try to deflect them from their path. The highest-energy neutrinos originate in powerful cosmic objects like supermassive black holes or active galactic cores, so they carry precious information from the very inside of these objects with them. No other particle can do that. Neutrinos are the unicorns of space!
With my hands wrapped in three glove liners and bearpaws (the heaviest kind of mittens we have), chemical and electrical handwarmers in between, I sit on the ice watching the incredible light show above me. The display makes me almost forget my "scarfies" - when your hands hurt so bad that you want to scream and barf at the same time - which made me want to go back inside so desperately just a minute ago.
But right know I'm too busy not being able to decide which way to turn my head: To the swiftly dancing purple lights right above me or the slow moving green and red ribbons in the distance. The moon is still up, so it's probably light enough for people on the observation deck to see me running around like a chicken, trying to get the best possible view of the auroras. I don't think anybody could hear me howling at the moon though. ;)
There are times when South Pole is trying to kill you. Which is literally every second. But there are also times when South Pole is trying to kill you a little less, and those who endure the bitter cold just long enough, are occasionally being rewarded by an unforgettable display like this. Although the show lasted for hours, I consider myself less brave for withstanding the cold rather than extremely lucky - solar bombardments like this are rare even here at South Pole, and I am grateful for being one of the fortunate few to witness it.
The weather has been so shitty that I was planning on dedicating this whole journal entry to ranting about it. But you can't really be mad for a long time when you get compensated with auroras, so I'm just gonna make this an informative one instead.
Two things go well together at South Pole: Warm and windy on the one hand, and cold-as-fuck and not-windy on the other. You almost never get cold-and-windy or warm-and-not-windy. You can see two examples for warm-and-windy from last week in the pictures below.
If you ask me what I prefer: I'd take -80° C without wind over -40° C and 25 knots anytime, and I'll bet every other winterover would say the same. No matter how many layers you wear and how windproof you think your cloth are - the wind will find you and it will hurt you. Goggles are not a thing in the winter, because the heat and humidity generated by your own face is enough to make them freeze over within seconds. So people usually go with the Eskimo-slit technique, where you cover up your whole face except a tiny portion where your eyes are. The air you breathe out through your gaiters usually is warm enough to keep that patch of exposed skin frostbite-free - unless it's windy, then your only chance is to either walk with your face faced away from the wind or cover it up with your mittens. Either way, you're not gonna be able to see. Wind sucks! :D
The human body needs sunlight to generate happy-vitamins. We don't get sunlight here, so most people take supplements. I do, too, but that's not all it takes. I go outside almost every day to look at the stars and get my dose of totally imaginary starlight-vitamins. ... But after two weeks of total shieet weather which made it impossible to stick your nose out, people could tell that I wasn't taking it too great. Grumpy, cynical and homesick me probably wasn't too fun to be around.
Two days ago, the sky finally *FINALLY* cleared up again, the wind died down, and people could watch me in my Big Red outside, lying on my stomach in the snow and embracing my sweet sweet -60° C with zero windchill, trying to get my starlight-tan back. What a time to be alive.
I guess everybody has their own way of keeping their peace of mind at the end of the world, and mine definitely lies outside in the night sky. That's why I spent every free minute I had these last couple of days all around Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, taking pictures and being happy. And as if to apologize for the two-week long shitshow, mother nature gave me my favorite auroras when I went outside on Wednesday in the middle of my night: Gigantic purple and green pillars of light, just hanging there in the sky, seemingly motionless but constantly changing. Nobody else was out there, and I'd like to believe this was just for me. In case the weather will get bad again (very likely), that moment made my entire week.
Johannes and I also seized the opportunity to do some work on the roof of ICL. For that, the weather has to be just perfect - because for some reason, if it's stormy around station, it's that times a hundred out at ICL, and on the roof especially.
Mileage: 329.43 - Finally hit the 300! I kept taking it a little slow to give my knees and feet a break, but so does Ta-Lee. He's currently about two miles ahead.
Ice Facts #14 Zapp!
A bunch of people I've never met have been writing me the nicest digital letters over the past months, to wish me all the best for my time on the Ice, to re-connect with the continent they visited many years ago or just out of curiosity. The question I've been asked in these letters a few times now is "do you get zapped a lot?" The answer is: Yes, only all. the. time.
I guess it's because of the low pressure and the insane dryness, that things just build up crazy electrostatics that, in the real world, would just slowly be discharged through the air. Not at South Pole! Here you get zapped basically every time you touch something metal. And sometimes it really hurts! The other day I walked up the station outside stairs and touched a hand rail which dumped so much charge through my bear mittens that you could see it spark. Autsch!
This really becomes a problem when you are working on electronic equipment, like your camera, or the over a hundred shit-expensive servers that we have in ICL. You can absolutely kill one of those by just touching it, that's why we wear ESD jackets (lab coats with wires woven into the fabric) and dissipative wrist bands in the server room at all times.
Once again the moon rises over Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and once again it brings with it some pretty peculiar weather. Peculiar in the sense of mayhem and madness, with 30 knot winds and zero visibility. Bleh. As you know, the weather has a non-insignificant influence on my mood - but even a storm can have unexpected surprises up it's sleeve.
So as I am shuffling down the tunnels for my daily fuel rounds on Sunday morning, I stumble over a pile of snow as tall as me in the VMF arch - a sastrugi that was pushed through the cracks in the doors by the storm. That guy was nothing compared to what we found in the logistics arch the next day! That stuff you can see in the pictures came through the closed doors a snowflake at a time - just to give you an idea of how windy it really was.
Anyway, we also had one nice day last week - that is, a couple of nice hours in an otherwise equally shitty day. I seized the opportunity for some aurora and moon watching in the backyard.
We broke another wind record today! You can hear the wind howling and feel the station shake in the gale. The weather has been a real a-hole the last couple of weeks, which turned any outside activity into an almost-suicide mission. All the outbuildings are connected to the station by flaglines that help you find your way in the dark - but these days you can't even see from one flag to the next, which makes working outside so dangerous that our safety engineer Ted installed sign-out boards at all the exits, so that if you really have to leave the station, people know where you are and when you're supposed to be back. Luckily, no incidents so far. Fingers crossed.
You know how being trapped inside makes me toasty, and on top of all this I beat the "Zelda" video game I've been playing over the last months - bored AND grumpy is a dangerous combination! So for the sake of occupation, Tribble and I decided to do a little photo tour around Amundsen-Scott. Also because mom and dad kept bugging me about it. <3
If you've been following this blog for a while, you've already encountered a few important places on station, like the big gym, the galley, the power plant or the communications office. Today I'm gonna show you some more corners of my home away from home.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is built on giant adjustable pillars that currently hold it about 5 meters above the ground (that's why it's sometimes called the "elevated station"), so that the wind can blow underneath it and we don't get buried in eternal snow. It's symmetrically divided into A- and B-Pod, which each have four sub-pods. A1, A4, and B1 are the berthing pods, where A4 is only occupied in the summer and used as food storage during the winter. A1 has the biggest rooms so it's the preferred sleeping area, but some of us (me) chose a small B1 room over the crowded A1 - you basically have a whole hallway to yourself, and in my case I even have my own bathroom!
Together with the big gym that lives in B4, the berthing pods form the four finger-like station extensions that you can see in some of my photos, like this one. Among other things, A2 holds the galley, A3 is home to all the offices, the science lab is in B2 and comms and management live in B3. You enter the elevated station either through the main entrance "Destination Alpha" or short "DA" to the B3 pod; the cargo entrance "Destination Zulu" or short "DZ" between A1 and A4 pods; or through the Beercan - the staircase outside of A2 that is shielded from the wind by a round sheet metal structure that literally looks like a beercan, as you can see in this photo.
In case of a major disaster - let's say the complete A pod burns to the ground - the B1 pod (where I live) serves as a lifeboat. It has it's own little power plant, kitchen, laundry room and pool table, and is separated from the rest of the station by big-ass fireproof doors. Let's hope we never have to use them.
The one thing that keeps us sane in these times of raging storms and blowing ice: Good food. Provided by our galley crew consisting of our head chef Zeke, our production cook Mikey, our baker Denise, and Dan the steward. Those four have by far the longest and hardest work day on station, but they're always happy, and that makes everybody else happy. And seriously, Denise's deserts are so damn good it makes you wonder if she's trying to slowly kill us all by diabetes. So good.
When the weather is bad and I can't pass my time by roaming Amundsen-Scott's backyard, or when I feel otherwise depressed, I usually visit Mikey in the kitchen and get him to bullshit around with me - the smell of delicious food and Mikey's invincible spirit always make me feel better. Sometimes I even help out! :)
So how does food work at South Pole? We have three meals a day - breakfast, lunch and dinner - provided throughout the regular work day as it is valid for most of us, according to South Pole time zone which is identical with New Zealand time (UTC+13). For those of us on midrats (midnight rations, i.e. night shift) there is always food in the leftover fridge; also you are free to use the kitchen as long as you clean up after yourself. Our indestructible steward Dan takes care of breakfast and lunch dishes, and dinner dish pit is tackled by all of us in a rotating schedule.
Since South Pole can only be re-supplied during the summer, fresh fruit usually runs out by mid-February. Yes, I haven't eaten an apple in over five months. However, we grow a certain amount of fresh vegetables in the growth chamber, like leafy greens, kale, broccoli, etc., which surprisingly is enough to have salad for everybody almost every other night. We've almost run out of "fresh" eggs by now, and our milk is made from powder. Basically everything else is either canned, or frozen and stored in the world's largest natural deep freezer: The LO arch. The extreme temperatures let us store things basically forever - the other day we found a can of decaf-coffee powder that expired in 1988. So long, and Happy Pizza!
South Pole is trying to kill us more than ever, and the wind is as unforgiving as never before. I frostnipped my nose and eyebrows several times last week - frostnip looks like a nasty sunburn with white and red discolorations and peeling skin, and feels about as bad as it sounds. But as long as it hurts, you're basically fine. When your skin turns black and you loose sensation is when you have to start worrying about frostbite, which is quite a serious condition that can lead to week-long numbness and not seldomly to amputation. So far, no accidents to report; people are being careful and responsible, yeah! Also, speaking of shiieet weather: The photo below gives you an update on sastrugi evolution in the LO arch. It's getting ridiculous.
Desperate situations require desperate measures. So what to do when you are being trapped inside a steel cage in the middle of an eternal desert of ice, and the weather is too shitty to even think about going outside for weeks in a row? You come up with shenanigans to maintain your sanity. This week's episode: "The Big Lebowski"-Party in the gym! Featuring hand-made costumes, Raffi's Dude-pyjamas, all-tape bowling balls and pins, too many "White Russians", lots of robes, nihilists, Jesus, toes, and of course the movie.
Winter Solstice, the 21st of June, the day the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky. The darkest of all South Pole's seemingly endless nights. The day I feel as far away from the rest of the world as never before is also the day I feel furthest from my home at the bottom of the Earth.
Together with Sunset and Sunrise Dinner, Midwinter is the most important holiday on the Ice. It marks the half-point of our adventure, celebrates the sanity that people managed to keep up until now, and honors the four persons that have died at South Pole (in 1966, 1980, 2000 and 2014). I am the 1527th person and the 231st woman to ever celebrate it. There's this very cute tradition among Antarctic winterovers to email greeting cards to all the other manned stations on the continent - we received a total of 34 that we hung up in the galley. I had no idea there were so many stations that were occupied year-round; most of the bases are deserted during the winter months for obvious reasons. The majority of the winterover stations are at the cost though, meaning they take flights and vessels and probably have 24/7 internet connection. We are by far the remotest place on the continent. On the planet.
As IceCube winterover I do not exactly have the hardest workdays on station, mostly because the Cube has been purring like a little kitten and hardly ever needs Johannes' and my attention except for routine works. So I volunteered to serve as assistant Maitre D' to Mr. Dan Ellis - I waited tables for so many years in the real world, and honestly I kinda miss it a little bit, so Midwinter Dinner was the perfect opportunity to practice my rusty skills and say thankyou to all the wonderful people I share this place with. Dinner was a great success, not to mention the a-maz-ing food the galley crew prepared for us, the signature cocktails they came up with and the fabulous after-party that took place all over the station.
But not all is glorious at Amundsen-Scott around the time of Winter Solstice. Nobody really knows why, but Midwinter is infamous for being the time of the year when people start to snap, personal relationships are being put to the test and long held-back frustrations volcano to the surface. This year is no exception. Nobody went completely nuts yet, and all together this crew does pretty well. But even in the happiest families, drama is inevitable when you live in a confined space together for so long. Myself not being spared. Former winterovers told me: "Raffi, if you're not a completely ignorant idiot, you don't leave South Pole the same person you were when you got there." Midwinter is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to once again realize how much I value the friendship of the 39 souls I have the privilege to know, here, at the end of the world.
And darling, do not fear: There are lighter days to come.
IceCube is looking for high-energy neutrinos coming from extremely powerful objects outside our galaxy. In the past years of data taking, the collaboration was able to identify a handful of particle signatures in the detector as such neutrinos - which is proof for their existence and was a huge success for the experiment. However, so far none of these neutrinos could be traced back to it's source, i.e. nothing could be found at the locations in the sky where the experts thought those neutrinos were coming from.
On September 22nd 2017, IceCube detected a promising neutrino energy signature and alerted the international community of observatories around the globe and in space to the location where the neutrino originated. Working closely together, the collaboration was able to identify the blazar TXS 0506+056 as the source of that neutrino. The object is located just off Orion's left shoulder and about 4 billion light years away.
A blazar is an object that can be described as a super-massive black hole in the middle of a galaxy. The incredible forces that distort space to its breaking point in the immediate perimeter of a blazar generate gigantic flares that violently blast light and matter into space. These flares - called jets - shoot out perpendicular to the black hole's accretion disk and are subject to rapid fluctuations. Only objects like these are capable of producing cosmic radiation of such energies. The neutrino detected by IceCube had an energy of 300 TeV - that is more than 45 times the energy of the particles generated in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth.
Why is that a big deal?
First of all: We basically found a space railgun firing alien particles towards Earth. How is that not cool. And here's the real reason: We knew about high-energy neutrinos before, as we did about blazars (there are about 2000 currently observed). Now we know those two are connected, which holds valuable information about the processes that happen inside blazars and blazar-like objects. The only way neutrinos of such unbelievable energies are generated is through proton acceleration. The accerelerated protons decay into pions which then decay into neutrinos - all that happens within the giant jets, which in this case luckily pointed directly towards Earth. That means IceCube and the collaborating telescopes just found a smoking gun of proton acceleration - and busted TXS 0506+056 in the very act.
Knowing that blazars are gigantic hadron accelerators will give scientists many insights in what might be happening in and around super-massive black holes. This groundbreaking discovery is another step towards unravelling the mysteries of this universe.
Be it to apologize for the weeks and weeks of nasty winds and blizzards, or be it to give us a false sense of security to smash us even harder with the storms that are yet to come - the weather suddenly decided to play nice. Real nice. Instead of warm and windy, the last few weeks have been mostly calm, cold, and above all, clear. Sometimes clear to the point where you turn your head back to your feet, because the endless freckled void that is the South Pole night sky is just too unbearable to wrap your head around.
Okay okay, I'm getting a little carried away here. But the night sky still has this weird fascination to me that sometimes lets me forget I'm a scientist and supposed to be super rational about those things. Or am I? Anywhosers, stars and the Milky Way is very much not the only thing we got to see over the last weeks. Pretty much the whole month of July, the Sun completely forgot about the fact that it's supposed to be at its activity minimum right now, and bombarded us with solar winds that created the brightest and prettiest and most powerful aurorae I've seen all season. This journal entry shall give you a faint impression of what that's like. In my opinion all of the photos deserve to be shown in full size, but I don't want to make this entry 6 feet long so make sure you give 'em a click! (And yes, this is me being insanely proud of my own shots. Please also check out Johannes' photo blog!)
I already mentioned that good weather at South Pole means calm and cold. If you've never been to the Antarctic plateau, you probably don't know what that means. Let me try to explain: You pretty much get used to your nose hair freezing after the first week of summer - but your eyelids freezing shut due to condensation of your own breath on your upper cheeks and you forcefully ripping off tiny pieces of your own face to be able to see again is a sensation that is reserved for a winterover. I think I already mentioned the "scarfies" in an earlier post - That happens when you let your hands get too cold, and you get inside and they slowly warm up which induces an indescribable pain that makes you want to scream and barf at the same time. And the only thing you can do about it is wait. it. out. But as I said: As long as it hurts, you don't have to worry about frostbite. Where was I? Yes, cold. Good weather comes with it. Last night, the weather got so extraordinarily good that we reached our season's coldest temperature yet: -103.0 °F which equals -75.0 °C (the screenshot of our weatherboard on the right was taken right before that). That is about negative four times the temperature of your kitchen freezer.
Negative a hundred degrees Fahrenheit is a rare thing even at South Pole, so it caused a good deal of excitement among the 40 intrepid winterovers, including a spontaneous little minus-a-hundred-party in the galley. July and August are the coldest months, so it might happen again!
Mileage: 450.73 - Made it halfway! Which is actually 418 miles. I'm currently about 20 miles ahead of Ta-Lee because he took a little lazy break.
Science Facts #8 From the treasure chest of confusing astronomy: The Sidereal Day
I am very much NOT a phone person. Seriously, my life results tripled the day I found out I can order pizza online. I only ever call my family and my closest friends from South Pole - and the only time when it really makes sense to attempt a call is during the DSCS pass when we have about four hours of our fastest internet. My people might have noticed that each time, my calls happen to an earlier hour of the day. But why is that?
The reason for that is the way our planet orbits the Sun, or rather what we make of it. You know, for us, a day has 24 hours - from noon to noon, when the Sun reaches its highest position above the horizon. This is called a solar day, and it's based upon the apparent motion of the Sun in the sky. The problem: This does not, as you might think, equal the time the Earth needs for one full rotation around its axis - because our planet also rotates around the Sun. Look at the picture on the right: The Earth starts out at point (1). After a full circle (2), it has changed it's position relative to the Sun, so it has to rotate just a tiny little bit more to make it "noon" again and to complete the solar day (3). The difference between a full rotation of the Earth and a solar day is about 3 minutes and 56 seconds.
The 23 hour 56 minutes and 4 second long period of a full rotation is also called the sidereal day (spoken /saɪˈdɪəriəl/) and matches the apparent motion of the stars in the night sky - they are so far away that our relative movement is neglectable.
The satellites that provide internet to South Pole live in sidereal time - while we go after the solar clock. That means the satellites come online about four minutes earlier everyday, and have shifted about two hours after a month. I think it would be a nice experiment to organize life at Pole along the sidereal day, and shift the meal times an hour forward every 15 days to account for the satellite shifts - so that you don't have to get up at 3 in the fuckin morning to catch a tiny little bit of fast internet... If you are curious about our exact satellite times, you can find a schedule on the South Pole intranet - only when our internet is up though.
It's been almost a month since Midwinter, and not a day goes by where my camera and me aren't outside to take photos of the South Pole night sky. The weather has been off-the-wall beautiful, and now that the second half of winter has dawned it suddenly hit me that my time here is going to run out faster then I thought - and I want to take home with me as many digital memories as humanly possible.
People say that the months after Midwinter are slow and uneventful; some are making travel plans and are anxious to get out of here. Not me! I cling to every single second this place has in stock for me. I even tried cutting sleep in order to not miss anything. With little success - the more I try to slow things down, the faster they're gone. I also noticed that Sundays, on which I normally sleep in, seem to last the longest. Maybe it's the station wide lazy-vibe since it's most people's day off? Whatever it is, the week should have more of it.
Speaking of sleep: My sleepy time has been messed up quite a bit by the satellite schedule lately. You know, kinda like the full moon keeps some people awake at night. Only that the internet is up every night instead of just once a month, and I'm addicted enough to set my alarm to 3 in the morning, do some internetting, and go back to sleep till 6. And the schedule is not getting better, so I've got some nap intensive weeks ahead of me.
It takes a while for the lights to come on, so the first few steps through the icy caves we walk in pitch black darkness. The floor is slippery and so are the walls, because, well... they're made out of ice, so I carefully watch my steps. The tunnel we're in is only about five feet wide and stuffed with pipes, so single file is the way to go. Every once in a while, we intersect junctions of old tunnels, most of them are either collapsed or blocked by plywood. Frequent window-shaped cuts in the walls display all kinds of peculiar objects to remind those who go here of past winterover seasons - we reached the shrines. Some of them hold items that was of some importance for the people who put them there, like the "last tub of vanilla icecream" from 2012, or the handkerchief that Buzz Aldrin sneezed into when he visited South Pole in 2016. Other shrines, however, contain somewhat stranger things, like the weird mummified mask you can see in the picture below, which helps a good deal to give this place its creepy atmosphere.
The ice tunnels stretch for miles, and their main purpose is to connect the arches of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to the rodwell, our water source, and the sewage outfall. Our utilities mechanics (UTs) have to walk the tunnels every day to check for pipe leaks. Today is Patrick's turn, and he agreed to take me on a little tour.
Here, 15 meters below the surface, the ice is so dense that the tunnel ceilings do not have to be supported - like a mine cut in solid rock. But the glacier is moving, and the ice keeps growing back, so every few years a whole army of carpenters gets sent down here to widen the tunnels with chain saws. If you take a close look at the top picture, you can see where they cut out brick by brick last summer.
As we are walking, all echo of our steps and voices gets absorbed between the narrow walls of ice, which enhances the unsettling flair of this place. The crooked and iced-over condition of the old emergency escape hatches does not help with the tiny little bit of claustrophobia that most of us share; luckily, nobody ever had to use those. Just in case, a few of the hatches were renewed just a couple of seasons ago.
Our first stop is the outfall. It's a big hole in the ice, about 200 m deep, where all our sewage water, e.g. from the bathrooms and galley, goes. Deep down, the outfall is kept at a comfortable temperature by the millions of bacteria - but the pipes and the upper part of the hole tend to freeze shut every once in a while, that's why the UTs have to check on it every day. I even got to dip the outfall a few months ago; that has to happen every four weeks in order to find out how full of shit our hole is. Chrchr.
You might wonder where this gigantic cavity comes from? In order to answer that, we have to walk a little further down to the very end of the ice tunnels. Here, we climb up to the surface and enter a small heated shack that lonely sits in the middle of nowhere: The rodwell shack. Inside, a gigantic spool of hose and steel cable, which goes hundreds of meters down a quite different hole, that is very crucial to our survival.
At the bottom of the abyss, a pump constantly pushes up ice-cold water to the surface, while at the same time circulating warm water back down the hole as the only way to keep the rodwell from freezing over. Water is extracted from this loop, processed in the water plant, and eventually provides the everyday fresh drinking water for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. "Fresh" is probably not quite the right word though, since this water is actually thousands of years old. The bubble of liquid water is initially created by means of a big heated weight that slowly gets lowered down into the ice - similar to the way the IceCube holes were made. Once the well runs dry, the pump goes into a new whole, and the old cavity becomes the new sewage outfall. That happens about every 5-7 years. The rodwell is named after its inventor, army engineer Raul Rodriguez. For more information, see this article.
Don't worry though, in the unlikely case the rodwell pump fails, we have a snow-melting device in the arches. Not quite that efficient and a pain to operate, but at least we won't have to go outside and eat snow.
Holidays - and the festivities they come with - are very important for maintaining moral among the winterovers. But what to do when Midwinter is already a month ago, and there won't be any other holiday for at least another two? - You come up with our own! Christmas in July is a year-long tradition at South Pole; featuring tacky decorations in the galley, Christmas music, cookies, an amazing dinner, ugly Christmas sweaters, and gift exchanges. Even the two South Pole dinosaurs, Alex and Olivia, were excited to break the daily routine with some holiday flair.
Our NOAA-Tech Sabrina organized "Secret Satan": That's basically Schrottwichteln with a larger portion of ill-intend. Here's the rules: You randomly get assigned a name, and then you come up with a Christmas gift that you think Satan would want that person to have. That gift is ideally accompanied with a letter from Satan that is read out loud to the whole crew on Christmas Eve. I drew Ted's name from the hat (yes, it's supposed to be anonymous, but who are we kidding) - and I know he "fucking hates the New York Yankees" (that's a baseball team), so I made him a NYY snuggle pillow with the ugliest fabrics I could find in the crafts room.
My Secret Satan - which I'm pretty sure is Ted - gave me all the peanut-butter flavoured food items that are available on station. Everybody knows I really hate that stuff. When I think of peanut butter, I picture a gigantic peanut, taking an ugly diarrheic massive dump into a jar, and then they sell it as "peanut butter". Gross.
Also, Ted secretly totally loves his pillow.
What else happened? Oh yeah, just in time for Christmas, our carpenter Pete closed off the A2 hallway for long overdue floor maintenance. As a B1 resident, I now have to go all the way around through the first floor to get to the galley... Well, that way I get in some extra exercise, and it makes me walk by the greenhouse more often - which I totally didn't yet write about at all, so that's coming up next.
By the way, parts of this and other journal entries might re-appear in articles I write for the Antarctic Sun as the South Pole Correspondent - another Job I couldn't say "no" to in the beginning and which then turned out to be a lot of fun! :D
In an eternal desert of ice that is isolated from society for eight months of the year, that has very limited resources, and where personal sacrifices are crucial to the survival of the crew, you learn to appreciate things that everybody takes for granted in the real world. Like 24/7 high-speed internet. Draft beer. 10-minute warm showers. Pizza delivery service. And especially: Fresh food.
Everything we eat here is either frozen or canned or both, and most of that stuff is years past its expiration date. The fresh fruit that has been flown in right before station closing was gone within days. Some vegetables made it a little longer, especially onions and potatoes, but those days too are long gone now. And we recently ran out of our last fresh resource: Eggs. If you've never experienced something like this, you probably have no idea of the appreciation a human can have for a single leaf of fresh kale, or a tiny red cocktail tomato.
Luckily, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station Hydroponic Growth Chamber provides a little more than that. Thanks to our NOAA-Tech Sabrina, who familiarized herself with the complicated pump and climate system of the Greenhouse over the summer, we have a small bowl of fresh greens for everybody almost every other day. Besides Sabrina, eight other volunteers help to keep the Greenhouse a lush and living place throughout the winter. For that purpose, they follow a simple concept: "If you plant something every day, you can harvest something every day." And here's how it works: The seeds (which are all chosen and pre-ordered by the program; we can request seeds for next year but are not allowed to bring our own stuff since that would be an Antarctic Treaty violation) are planted in rockwool grow cubes as can be seen in the picture above. After sprouting, the little baby plants are transplanted into the nursery, which is a dedicated area in the back of the Greenhouse. When they are old enough, they are transplanted again to eventually be picked by Mikey and end up in the kitchen.
As you probably guessed correctly from the photos: There is no soil in the South Pole Greenhouse. All systems are hydroponic, which means the plants grow in nothing but constantly flowing enriched water. With this approach come some essential advantages: No soil means no ground for bugs, fungi, and other pests which would pose a threat to the Antarctic Treaty. Also the place is easy to keep clean, and you don't have to worry about over- or underwatering your plants. The only problem are algae, but filtering the water through UV lamps takes care of most of them. On the downside, the whole system is very dependent on the functionality of the pumps, the correct mixture of nutritions in the water and the right amount of exposure to artificial sunlight. If one of those things are off, you are likely to kill your whole garden in a day, and that definitely has happened before. Luckily, not in our winter.
My job is it to take care of the tomatoes. The whole middle section of the growth chamber is dedicated to them, and I don't know if it's the hydroponic environment or whether USAP sent us weird seeds, but the tomatoes grow a lot differently here than what I'm used to from my own plants at home. Instead of one stem growing vertically, they are more bush-like and grow in all directions, with side branches going off everywhere, to a point where you have a hard time telling what branch belongs to which plant. It's a handful to keep those guys under control, and you have to be a little ruthless when pruning them, otherwise they tend to grow over your head - literally.
The sun hasn't been shining over Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for six months now. The endless desert of ice is slowly trying to consume humanity's only resort within hundreds and hundreds of miles: Snowdrifts as big as the station itself surround the whole building, and the 40 winterovers work hard to keep the exits free and the staircases accessible. It's gonna take almost all of next summer and lots of heavy machinery to free Amundsen-Scott and its outbuildings from South Pole's icy grip.
Meanwhile, I have found a way to make something good of the uprising snow monsters; by listening to the various noises they make when you walk on them. Knirsch knirsch knirsch shriiiieeek! Kdunk! There is no way of describing how funny it sounds when you break the tip off of certain snowdrifts with your moonboots. Kdunkk! Gnihihihihi. I tell you, it's hilarious :) The first time I heard it was when Johannes accidentally hit a sastrugi on our way out to IceCube a few days ago, and it made me so happy that ever since I've kicked every possible drift to reproduce that sound. Turns out, it depends a lot on shape and texture of the little icebergs, and it's not easy to find one with the right set of properties. Anyway, the important thing is, I found a reliable method to entertain myself on my ways out to the Cube when the weather is shitty and you can't see the stars.
Speaking of stars: Every winterover crew at Amundsen-Scott takes a group photo that goes on the station wall, so that everybody who winters here remains forever a part of this unearthly place. Those photos reach back to the 1960's! And each crew is challenged by previous years to come up with something special for their photo. We chose the moment of the total lunar eclipse: 8:15 in the morning on July 28th. The final photo is not yet official, but you'll get to see it eventually. Lasting over an hour, this eclipse was the longest we'll be witnessing for a while. For those of you who watched it from the northern hemisphere: Isn't it funny that for you the positions of Moon and Mars are switched? I mean, it makes total sense, but if you haven't thought about it - like me - it might give you a chuckle.
Last week, South Pole was shaken by a series of power outages caused by a flaky generator down in the power plant. Usually that's no big deal because the backup generators are programmed to take over the load immediately - but the failover held off this time, which caused black- and brownouts that threw the entire station into a dither. Especially the B2 lab is a center of anxious excitement at those times - power outages can permanently damage the sensitive science hardware. Thanks to the fact that each and every of IceCube's almost 200 computers is connected to a UPS device equipped with 16 heavy batteries that is able to compensate power loss for up to 20 minutes, our detector was fine this time; luckily none of the other experiments incurred longterm damages either.
Also, we eventually ran out of "fresh" eggs on July 24th. For real. We've been eating eggs until almost August at South Pole, that's a new record I think! The eggs can not be frozen, so they were kept refrigerated the whole time - and apparently you can store them for almost seven months with a majority of them not going bad. Think about that next time you're about to throw out eggs that are three weeks old.
When I started to plan my New Zealand vacation the other day, I remembered that my journal was still missing two entries about winterover team building in Estes Park and being delayed for the Ice in Christchurch. So I finally sat down to write them. Yes, those things happened a long time ago, but there's pretty pictures of plants and animals and stuff. Go check it out!
Ice Facts #18 Emergency Response Teams (ERT)
For any case of emergency, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station has four Emergency Response Teams to quickly take care of the situation: Team 1 the First Responders, Team 2 the Fire Brigade, Team 3 Logistics, and Team 4 Medical. When the automatic fire detection system sounds an alarm, the First Responders literally drop whatever they're doing to get to the scene and evaluate the incident. Their job is to give the Fire Brigade, who is next on scene, an overview about if and how much of an area is on fire, how many possible victims there are, and stuff like that. It's then pretty much on the Fire Brigade to unfuck the situation, with assistance of the Logistics Team who provides them with anything they need, like extra air cylinders, tools, extinguishers, fans, etc. Any victim that is extracted by the Fire Brigade is then assessed and taken to sick bay by the Medical Team.
That's South Pole ERT explained in one paragraph - but of course it's not as easy as it sounds. Every incident is different, and nothing ever goes as planned. That's why we have weekly trainings and monthly drills for every team to prepare for a time that hopefully never comes. Of course a fire is not the only emergency that can occur. The trainings and drills also broach the issues of people gone missing or stuck in a confined space, injuries, gas leaks, and spill accidents.
Only people who have completed the fire training in Denver or otherwise have the necessary experience can be a part of the fire team; similar for medical team. Even though the Fire Brigade is obviously the coolest of the four teams ;), not everybody who can chooses to join, for different reasons: In case of a real fire, Team 2 takes the highest risk. The weekly trainings can be physically demanding (e.g., playing dodge ball in 30 pounds of gear and on air), and you have to feel comfortable with wearing an SCBA and breathing from a tank. Also, if you're a guy, you have to shave your face to get a good seal on your mask, which for some dudes is a big no-no.
So far, we luckily only ever had false alarms, usually set off by the galley staff when trying to cook steaks. However, being caught off-guard can not be a thing, so people frequently add their own trainings to the weekly and monthly ERT schedules. Brent, our assistant doctor, gave an interesting lesson on Gamow bags that can save lives in serious cases of altitude sickness, as well as a lecture on venomous snakes (which is arguably a little less applicable at South Pole). About half the station also completed Patrick's CPR class and earned their Basic-Life-Support-Provider certificates.
Even though its arrival was predicted by the ancient murals, nobody really believed in it anymore. Over the course of time, facts turned into rumors, rumors turned into jokes, and jokes turned into legends - but now it's here, coming to shame the non-believers. Some of us, myself amongst them, fought it until the very end, thinking the long darkness must have finally hatched the seed of insanity within the thin minds of those who claim to have seen it with their own eyes. But I was proven wrong. One calm afternoon, when I was climbing the roof of the Dark Sector Laboratory to get a nice view of the center of our galaxy, with horror I finally realised what I have been trying to repress so desperately: The first shimmer of sunlight at the horizon, inevitably creeping up the Antarctic Plateau, inch by inch.
Long story short: The Sun is coming back, and I'm not happy about it :D I mean, yes, of course six months of darkness got to me a little bit, and I am looking forward to all the colors our central star will paint into the South Pole sky, but on the other hand I'm not tired of auroras yet, and pretty soon it will be too bright to see them dancing.
Like the fading night is a little heavy on my soul, for other people the exact opposite is the case: The continuing deprivation of sunlight had made them toasty, and people are talking about getting the hell out of here all over the place. The month of August is quite infamous for these grouchy vibes among generations of South Pole winterovers, hence the nickname: Angry August. SPT winterover Adam, who has experienced Angry August first hand two years ago, came up with a little game in the theme of the month: The Grumpy Cat Scavenger Hunt. He hid 50 laminated grumpy cats throughout the elevated station and the arches, each worth a certain number of points depending on how hard they are to find, and a sweet 50$ gift certificate for Dan's Little Store awaiting the lucky - or extraordinarily skilled - team who could gather the most points. Me being a little over-enthusiastic as usual, armed with a flashlight and the clue sheet, I soon secured the majority of grumpy cats together with my team mate Finn. The money went to good cause: PBR for the whole station. :)
Not everybody took Angry August as lightly as the intrepid cat hunters, though. There's been a couple of incidents, like the mysterious vanishing of the valve cores of the fat tire bicycle that people used to ride down the hallways; the one time we ran out of tomato soup on grilled-cheese day and plates were being smashed on the counter; and of course the "Phantom Door Knocker" who has been carrying out his nefarious deeds in A1 lately. To prevent Angry August from turning into Stabtember, our station manager Marco right out renamed it into "Awesome August", because desperate times require desperate measures. And so far, nobody died.
One thing that surprisingly did not fuel Angry August more than anything: The results of the Winter Film Festival, or WIFF. Each station on the continent and the surrounding islands that is occupied during the austral winter can participate by filming short videos in different categories and submit them to the other stations, who then collectively vote for the winning films. Unfortunately, our film didn't win in any of the categories, which was a huge bummer especially for the handful of people who put a lot of their free time into the production. But I guess in the end, what trumped the disappointment was the fun we had filming it - or maybe watching Ted eating a bunch of milk powder for the last scene.
We were asked not to share the videos with the rest of the world too much, so here's the plot of our WIFF movie instead:
Santa returns to his job for Christmas season just to find himself having confused the South Pole with the North Pole. Since South Pole has no Santa position, he takes a job as a plumber instead, and runs into all kinds of obstacles, like being summoned to the human resources manager several times a day and being kneed in the balls by an elf.
The Sun is coming up over Antarctica, and nothing can stand in its way. What last week had been a slightly lighter shade of navy blue at the horizon, has now become a thin, bright orange streak of undeniable sunrise. That means aurora season is in its last breaths - but it's not going without the proper goodbyes.
So far, the darkness is still fighting back; and where the horizon is lit up on one side, there is still a million stars, the galaxy and the Southern Lights on the other. The other day (not too soon), a solar storm painted the shiniest ribbons onto the black canvas that is South Pole sky, and it lasted for two entire days. Only relatively powerful solar particles can generate purple auroras, and even here they are pretty rare - so their appearance caused a good deal of excitement among the forty winterover souls, and even the most hardcore housecats (chrchrrmm, Ben) couldn't help it but to take a peak outside.
I am very much the opposite of a housecat, so I basically spent two days in the cold, only coming back inside to drink hot tea and unfreeze my camera. And it paid off: I shot over 1400 photos in 48 hours, and created a total of seven timelapses, some of which contain pictures that might be the best ones I got all season.
While the sky has been on fire and my camera and I spent every possible second in the snow, some winterovers have found what deemed them to be a better way to pass time until sunrise: Computer games. Since then, every other night the small conference room is filled with the noise of slaughtered armies and laptop fans, and the smell of chips, Redbull and dude. Normally I wouldn't judge, not even a little bit - but when the sky looks like this, the best game in the world couldn't justify LAN night for me. Come on guys, priorities.
In the meantime, it's been getting colder again: For quite a while the thermometer has been lingering around -80 °F, and there's good chances that it will get down to -100 °F at least one more time before the Sun heats the place up significantly. And those who are familiar with South Pole traditions know that negative a hundred is a reason for a very special holiday at Amundsen-Scott.
Winter is running out at South Pole, and now it's up to the forty winterovers to give Amundsen-Scott its annual spring cleaning. For that purpose, our stewie Dan (arguably the hardest-working person on station) has a whole list of station-opening tasks, that are since set about every weekend. IceCube has been purring like a kitten lately and needs minimum attention, so I usually sign up for all of them - little did I know what I was getting myself into this time.
It all started as an innocent storage-closet-organizing job. But what Dan's intrepid helpers would find in the depths of the little two-by-three meter room was to exceed imagination: Entire pallets of soda cans, that at one point in the past had been accidentally frozen and then swelled up to become little time bombs, not few of which already had gone off and drained their gooey contents onto the cardboard packaging, the shelfs, the walls, the floor, everywhere. Imagine. The. Mess. The cans had developed such an insane overpressure (however that is possible) that their tops and bottoms were weirdly warped outwards, as you can see in the picture on the right. Some of them looked like they were torn apart by an evil spirit that brutally forced itself to the outside, others had just tiny little punctures where the sugar and chemicals worked through the aluminum. And yes, apparently you CAN grow a good amount of mold at the South Pole.
Once the closet was cleaned out, mopped, and repainted, order was restored for a short while - but what to do with the hundreds of ticking time bombs and leaky cans that were sitting in the hallway, slowly soaking through their cardboard containers and creating a stinky puddle on the floor? We decided they couldn't just go into food waste; that would create an insanely big and heavy crate that had to be flown off the continent in a very unsustainable way. The obvious solution: Get rid of all the sticky soda, so that the empty, crushed cans can go into a much lighter and smaller waste crate. So the cans were carefully transported down to the logistics arch, where I joined the "Task Force for Controlled Soda Can Explosions": Donning Tyvek suits and safety goggles, and armed with screwdrivers, we pierced and blew up every single can. Not all of them went off in a good bang, but the soda from those who did sprayed EVERYWHERE (root beer works best). You should see the LO walls. I don't remember ever having so much fun taking out the trash. I was arguably more excited about it then the materials workers Zane, Travis and Steve, because, well, they were just doing their jobs. Thanks guys for letting me play, I had such a good time! :D
Speaking of good times: On Saturday, I celebrated my 28th birthday - the second one in a row away from home, and the first one on the Ice! Luckily it happened to be the Saturday of a two-day weekend (of which we only have one in each month), so there was a station-wide party vibe going on to begin with. It was also the day of our monthly all-tank dips in the fuel arch, but I don't really mind working on my birthday when I have ahead of me an amazing day of day-drinking (thanks to Johannes for taking my shift), scotch tasting, and great food from the "South Pole Iron Chef" competition that happened to take place in the galley. The day ended with a birthday party in the B1 lounge, featuring PBR, fancy leftover scotch, a piñata in the shape of the ICL made by our cardboard wizard Steve and stuffed from Cherisa's own candy supply, and of course my all-time favorite party playlist.
It sucked not to see my family and friends from home at my birthday, but celebrating with 39 very special people at this very special place is not the worst thing that ever happened. Thanks for making my day :)
By the way, we have these five big TVs in the galley (which you might have seen on some of my photos) on which the South Pole galley scroll is continuously providing us with the current weather, the satellite status, ERT and food schedules, etc. Whenever it's someone's birthday, I make a birthday slide for them that gets added to the scroll - as a surprise when they get breakfast in the galley. It all started out as a troll for Ted, but I had so much fun making his slide that I kept going - and now it's one of South Pole's cuter traditions :) You can see frozen versions of some of the birthday slides below. They're actually all gifs, but I didn't have enough space to upload the whole files. Just imagine they're all moving. I will keep adding more slides here, so take a look every once in a while!
I couldn't really find a way to include it into my last journal entry, but I wanted to give you a little update about two things:
First of all, we've reached the point of nautical twilight earlier this week. The setting moon adds another good portion of luminosity to the scene, so that I didn't even need a headlamp when walking out to the raydomes the other day. The picture on the right gives a pretty realistic impression of our light situation right now.
Second of all, even though it hasn't been windy a lot, we had another sastrugi intrusion in the LO arch. This time in the shape of a gigantic dragon's head (everybody knows that snow dragons are drawn towards the smell of 15 year expired root beer spill). But don't worry, it was defeated before it could get any further into the station to produce casualties - by means of two pretty awesome master swords crafted by our cardboard wizard Steve.
No actual dragons were harmed in the course of this photo shoot.
Science Facts #9 Blue lightning in the dark: How IceCube detects neutrinos
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory detects ultra-high-energy neutrinos from outer space, hoping to find out more about the properties and origins of those tiny particles. But how exactly does that work? In Science Facts #1 and Science Facts #6 I talked about IceCube and neutrinos a little bit already, but let's look into the process of how neutrinos turn into charged particles, how these particles emanate light, how that light is caught on IceCube's cameras, and what the recordings can tell us about the neutrino.
First of all, neutrinos are usually invisible to detectors. The only chance to see them is when they hit something really hard - like a molecule of ice, with almost the speed of light. IceCube is waiting for exactly that to happen. And South Pole has a lot of ice, which makes it more likely that a neutrino bumps into it in IceCube's field of view. The event of a high-energy neutrino hitting the ice, or to be exact, a nucleon (a proton or neutron) of the ice, is called a "deep inellastic scattering", in which the neutrino transfers part of its huge amounts of energy onto the nucleon. There are several kinds of these scatterings: Some are neutral current interactions, in which the neutrino leaves the scene unharmed (minus some energy) and goes about its way; others are charged current interactions, where the neutrino gets transformed into its corresponding lepton brother - the electron-neutrino into an electron, the muon-neutrino into a muon, and the tau-neutrino into a tau. The important thing is: In all these interactions, the powerful collision generates charged particles, either from the neutrino being transformed into a lepton, or from the particle shower that is immediately set off by the very upset nucleon - or both.
At this point after the collision, the IceCube detector is still completely unaware of what's going on. It's what happens next that makes the magic: The charged particles now travel through the ice, and they do that faster than light. ... Wait a minute, that's not possible! Except that it is. You see, in a perfect vacuum, no particle can move faster than light. Period. But in a medium, e.g. ice, light is slowed down, so that particles in fact can outpace it. No kidding! Anyway, the surrounding ice is now polarized by the fast moving particles, and starts to emanate blue light along their path. This is called the Cherenkov Effect. This process of polarization and light emission has a more famous equivalent in the acoustic domain, which is responsible for the sound cone emanating from a supersonic aircraft.
It is this blue light that sounds IceCube's alarm bells. The detector is equipped with 5160 very sensitive optical sensors (DOMs) that are on the lookout for the blue flashes literally all around the clock. In a high-energy neutrino event, not only one but hundreds of DOMs detect that light, and the intensities and detection times for all those DOMs are recorded. When put together after analysis, the big picture reveals a lot about the neutrino itself. Two of those results are shown in the graphic above: An electron-neutrino leaves a cascade-like signature in the detector, a muon-neutrino's looks more like a track. From these analyses, the IceCube scientists can extract information like the neutrino flavour, it's energy, and sometimes even the direction it came from, and with a little luck that leads them to an insanely powerful cosmic object hundreds of millions of light years away.
We've all been eagerly waiting for this moment to arrive: The day the aurora cameras on the roof are being switched off. They have been watching the South Pole sky all winter long, with optics that are sensitive enough to see Southern Lights even when they're invisible to the human eye. The station interior lights would have disturbed the measurements, so all windows had to be covered with cardboard or plywood for almost six months. But now, aurora season is over - and Amundsen Scott is stripped of its cardboardy screens. It's not quite bright enough outside yet to be able to see through the tinted windows rather than your own reflection in them, but nonetheless, the sudden openings in the walls make the station seem ten times bigger from the inside. Now that the covers are gone, it's almost like a spell was lifted from Amundsen-Scott, as was the gloomy sense of confinement from the minds of the winterovers.
But the timing could have been better. Although the elevated station arguably is one of the best heat-insulated buildings on the planet: Like in every normal house, the windows are the weak spots. When it gets extremely cold, even triple-pane glass walls can never completely stop it from creeping in and cooling down the aluminum window sills to below freezing in certain spots of the station, especially now that the extra insulation layer is gone. And the temperatures have been plummeting like they haven't all season.
It has been very cold for a while now, but over the course of the last few days, the thermometer went from the 80s to the high 90s, and today we hit -101.0 °F. It stayed that cold throughout the entire day. Negative a hundred is a big deal even for South Pole, especially that late in the season. People got real excited about it, and some folks even started fighting over sauna times. ;)
A major upside of the extreme cold is that there usually isn't any wind, which makes going outside a lot more pleasant - only for a few minutes though. To all the people in the real world who claim there can't possibly be a difference in temperature perception at -60 and -70 °C: You have no idea. Going outside in -70 °C is like entering a whole new level of cold-as-fuck. Brrrr.
Ice cold air floods the skin on my neck, right where the gaiter meets the merino sweater, as I unzip my parka to take out my Sony camera. Although it has been living within the warmth of my cloth for the majority of my hike, the zoom is already sluggish from the cold, and the autofocus gave up a while ago. I manage to get one last shot of an orange horizon beneath a lavender sky before my loyal camera shuts down completely. "Battery exhausted" - after not even 20 minutes.
It is easy to underestimate the cold, now that the sunrise is immersing our world in a warm orange and purple glow. It is still -97 °F, a temperature in which every photograph is preceded by the question "How badly do I want this?" Badly enough to unzip my jacket and let out the insulation layer of air that my body worked on so hard? Badly enough to take off my bear paws and let go of the electrical hand warmers that I have been squeezing this whole time to prevent frost bite on my fingers? In my case, the photo usually wins, and I only regret it half the time.
Some might consider my daily hikes masochistic, but those are usually the folks who have taken down their window covers to enjoy the sunrise from the cozy warmth of their A1 berthing rooms. Where I live, in the almost vacant downstairs B1, the mercury hasn't risen above 60 °F (that is 15 °C) in weeks. Would I take the thick insulation off my window, the temperature in my room would plummet to almost freezing.
Speaking of which: It finally happened - I froze my tongue to a beer. I'm not proud of it, and it happened within circumstances that the smart me could have avoided, but nonetheless I think it's a good South Pole story. Short version: I opened a beer in the sauna, then took a sauna-break in the Beercan and forgot it there. When I went to get it later it was obviously frozen solid, but also had this frozen foam on top which I was really excited about. "Beer ice cream, neat!" But when I tried to lick the foam I accidentally touched the can - which was at outside temperature - and ripped a small chunk from my tongue that left behind a little white gap of instant frostbite. It still hurts. A lot. I bet Pete and Patrick will tell the story better as soon as they stop laughing their brains out.
Back to more pretty things: The first rays of the sun, which is still a few degrees below the horizon, brings to light all kinds of bizarre snow formations. Due to the extreme cold and darkness, no vehicles are running at South Pole during the winter, so the snow around Amundsen-Scott is basically untouched except for the roads that lead out to the telescopes and science buildings. The wind had six months' time to form beautiful sculptures, some of which seem to completely defy the laws of gravity.
The spring equinox will be in eleven days. Sunset has been a big white pingpong ball weather-wise, so let's hope it will stay cold and clear this time. So far: Looking good. I'm optimistic that my tongue has recovered by the time Sunrise Dinner is served.
Mileage: 587.46 - As you might have noticed, I'm slackin' a little bit. I made my peace with the fact that I won't make it to McMurdo; I really underestimated how hard treadmills SUCK. First of all, I seem to run funny on treadmills. My feet and knees were killing me in ways I never before experienced, and as a marathoner I went through a good amount of pain. Also, every minute on the treadmill that goes beyond my usual staying-fit workout started to seem like a huge waste of time to me, and I was really unhappy spending so many hours that could have been better spent otherwise at this special place, so I quit. A while ago, actually. I hope you're not disappointed. :)
I love auroras, no question - but sunset and sunrise are definitely the most beautiful times of the year at South Pole. Maybe because they are filled to the top with both anticipation and relief. Did you ever get up super early, or did you ever climb a mountain, to witness a sunrise or a sunset, and felt so very much in peace with yourself and the rest of the world? We have weeks of that here.
Although I can not claim to have been in peace with myself and the world at all times lately. I somehow managed to be spared from the grumpyness of Angry August, but Stabtember got me with all its weight. I can't quite explain why, sometimes I wake up in the mornings and get upset about little things, like my co-worker forgetting to do stuff during night shift, people being loud at breakfast, or the fuels board in the office not being updated correctly. Like, unreasonably upset. Not the I-haven't-had-my-first-coffee-yet kind of upset. Usually, I can walk it off on my way to IceCube, or by putting down a few miles on the treadmill and punching the bag for a while. And I know that almost all of those bad vibes arise from problems and insecurities of my own, but when even that realization fails to cure me of being mad at people and things, more extreme measures than self-reflection are required: Measures like helping Mikey in the kitchen.
Mikey is arguably the happiest person I know. He works ten hours a day for six days a week, making food for a pretty unforgiving Stabtember crowd, listens to complaints and special requests every single meal, somehow manages to squeeze three gym sessions a day into that schedule, and yet I've never seen him in a bad mood. Kudos, man! Anyway, when he notices me being grouchy, he let's me help and listen to his favorite band Phish (yeah, I know). Ironically, this weekend we made Happy Pizza. And yes, there's a whole story behind that.
It seems that every batch of winterovers develops their own little cult around their winter site manager. Last year's "Cult of Wayne" perpetuated their legacy with a mustache-shaped carpet tile in the galley floor. This year, the "Happy Pizza" movement arose from an incident, back in the days when we had our paper-towel all-hands intervention meeting. After a 25 minute sermon about how people are supposed to take their own towel to the shower and not dry themselves off with paper towels, our manager Marco released the amazed crowd to dinner with "Happy..." and after not being able to come up with an appropriate word that would fit the occasion (it didn't happen to be Sunday, Christmas or anybody's birthday): "... Pizza!" Because that's what was on the menu for that night. Since then, "Happy Pizza" has become an all-time appropriate form of greeting each other in the hallway, in the bathrooms, in the snow storm, everywhere. It roughly translates to "Have a nice day and peace to the world". Or whatever we want it to be. We make the rules. We also make T-Shirts!
Even though I haven't been the happiest of all the pizzas lately: Don't worry. I'm still enjoying myself very much, and the fact that being randomly and unreasonably agitated in September is a well known problem for South Pole winterovers makes me feel a lot better already. Your world at South Pole can get really really small sometimes, and it helps to remind yourself that so many of the things that seem important here won't have any significance whatsoever once back in the real world. I'm gonna try and take it as an opportunity to practice enjoying the little things in life. Like the other day, when I showered barefoot. I kinda got used to wearing flipflops in the shower during summer, and didn't change that habit at the beginning of winter even though I got my own bathroom, not really thinking about it. So I kicked off my shoes and it was the most liberating thing I've ever experienced. I think I know what freedom is now.
Ice Facts #19 What to wear
I get asked a lot about what I wear to protect myself against the cold. I did write a little bit about it in Ice Facts #4 already, but that didn't seem to answer all the questions so here's a little more details about South Pole fashion must-haves and no-nos. (The above is just a simplified summer version of a South Pole reverse striptease of course - now that it finally warmed up a little bit, it's possible to pull off shenanigans like that on the back porch. We do not normally get dressed outside ;)
First of all: Over the last year, I really learned to appreciate my Merino wool undergarments. Sure, it hurts to pay hundreds of dollars for pairs of long underpants that are in no way fashionable at all - but in my experience, wearing the fancy Merino stuff is the only way to stay warm. I tried my synthetic thermo running pants under my Carhartt bibs, as well as jeans, several layers of cotton, etc. Nothing works. Merino is the way to go. They used to issue the base layers, but stopped doing so a few years ago so that now you have to buy your own stuff. Luckily, IceCube reimburses their winterovers for ECW related items with 500$ (which is not nearly enough but gladly accepted).
What I underestimated was how cold my hands get. The blood circulation in my hands is not great to begin with, so that's usually the part of my body that brings me down. If you let your hands get too cold, you risk the scarfies which I mentioned in an earlier post: When it hurts so bad that you want to scream and barf at the same time, and there's nothing you can do about but wait it out. I try to fight it with three pairs of glove liners (one of which is Merino), bear paws and lots of handwarmers, which works great as long as I keep my hands in my mittens (which is difficult for photos). Since the materials team got me new boots, I haven't had any problems with cold feet which I was really surprised about.
Shielding your face is a big deal, too. Frostnip on your nose and cheeks is a part of everyday life here, and there's not really anything you can do about it. Goggles are useless in the winter and only good for a while in the summer (they're gonna fog up eventually), so that you have no choice other than going with the Eskimo slit. Our Doc Malcolm has been working on a battery powered face mask with fans and heaters all winter, but I'm not sure how that project turned out.
The thing you can always count on is the goose down feather stuffed Big Red. It's warm, it's comfortable, and a lot less awkward than it looks. It also serves well as a sleeping bag if you happen to be stuck in one of the filthier transit berthing rooms in McMurdo...
By the way, if it's your first season on the Ice you are required to take every single clothing item the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) in Christchurch issues you. If you are a tiny person like me, don't expect anything to fit perfectly ;)
Besides a variety of minor holidays that Amundsen-Scott's winterovers use as an excuse to eat an unreasonable amount of food and drink a bunch of beer, there are only three really important festivities during a South Pole winter: Sunset, Midwinter, and Sunrise, which are celebrated the Saturdays before or after the astronomical moments of the Equinoxes and Winter Solstice respectively. For someone who hasn't wintered at Pole, it's probably hard to comprehend the meaning of those events. Sunset marks the end of a busy and overcrowded summer season, the beginning of total isolation, and the start of a six months lasting night. Midwinter is a check point to remind us that, if we made it halfway, we can make it to the end, and that the darkest part is over. And then there is sunrise. Even though dawn lasts for more than a month, it comes so much quicker than expected. You wake up one day and it's too bright for auroras, then too bright for the last star, and before you know it the Sun shines in your face with all it's brutality and you have blind spots in your eyes for the better part of the week.
The weather has been exceptionally beautiful lately. Cold, very very cold, but beautiful. Until Robert had to ruin it by saying it was the best sunrise weather he's ever seen at Pole (it's his 14th winter). Two hours later, the gorgeousness had turned into a blunt, white and windy pingpong ball, and it stayed that way during the Equinox on Monday the 23rd, and until two days after. Thanks, Robert! :D
Missing the sunrise was a real bummer, but the galley staff pre-compensated with an amazing seven course Sunrise Dinner on Saturday, the 21st of September. I especially appreciate how they accommodate for us few vegetarians, not just for Sunrise but for a majority of the meals throughout the year. Let me tell you, it's not easy being a vegetarian at a place where there is very limited access to fresh ingredients, and it's equally hard for the cooks to come up with vegetarian options in a meal plan that clearly wasn't meant for that at all. Living in a community of mostly Americans with a rather meat-focused diet also doesn't help, and I have to admit that every once in a while I just can't stand the soggy fried tofu anymore, and go for a slice of brisket. The fact that I try to wait until right before the leftovers get thrown out, to not be in any meat-eaters way and at the same time because I find it ethically highly acceptable to eat meat that otherwise would go into food waste, earned me the nickname "Trashpanda". I'm not particularly happy about it, but I guess it's fairly accurate if you see it that way...
Food cravings in general are getting worse this time of year, when everybody's personal snack stashes run out. I ate the contents of my last can of rice-stuffed grape leaves the other day, and my last jar of olives is not gonna survive much longer. Fortunately, Johannes and I sent down enough Nutella to last us till the end. Hopefully. (There is Nutella for sale in the store, but it is so long expired that it separated into a liquid and solid phase. Big nope :)
Believe it or not: It never snows at South Pole. In fact, we pretty much only know three conditions: Sunny, cloudy and windy, or combinations of those. No thunderstorms, and obviously no rain either. Windy usually means there's ice crystals and snow flakes in the air that the wind picks up from the ground, sometimes as many that you can not see your own hand in front of your face. But that still doesn't qualify as "snowing". The closest thing to snow that we get here is when, on a completely cloudless day, it seems to rain ice crystals out of the thin air - a rare weather condition that is called "Diamond Dust". It's really pretty!
For a place where it never snows, quite a bit of the flaky powder piles up over the course of a year. It's so cold that the snow is never sticky enough to build a snowman, but yet it magically appears in places that completely defy the laws of gravity. Now that daylight returned to bottom of the world, my camera and me ventured around to look for all the wonderful things that time and stormy weather created during the long night, unseen by the eyes of the forty intrepid winterovers.
The Sun helps with cleaning up the mess a little bit. A slight change in temperature sometimes is enough to knock snow from a wall or a sign, and usually destroys the most bizarre of snow sculptures formed over the winter. The porch of the ICL unfortunately will need a shovel though - a staircase that turned into a slide is something that even the Sun can not fix.
While outside nature does its magic, the inside of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station temporarily turned into a blue and white paragon of Bavarian culture. It's Oktoberfest time - and record winterover and full-time Bavarian Robert wouldn't miss it for the world. As the only other German on station that is awake during a reasonable time (Johannes is still on night shift) I felt obligated to help, so Robert taught me how to make all the pretzels. The first few turned out a little sad, but I got the hang of it pretty soon. In return, Robert let me borrow his fake-boobs-in-fake-Dirndl dishpit apron. I probably had more fun than anybody who attended the real Oktoberfest ;)
Every winterover's worst nightmare is losing someone back home, and not being able to say goodbye and to be there for friends and family. This far into the season nobody really expects things to happen anymore, although of course it can happen to anybody at any time. Today, October 12th, we lost our family dog Kresta. Of course she was "just" a pet and there are worse things that can happen. But she was a loved family member for 15 years, and the thought of not being welcomed home by overly excited and uncontrollable tail-wiggling in the front yard breaks my heart.
Kresta was an old lady who had a good life. She will be deeply missed by everybody who was close to her.
Here's to her, and to freaking out over kids on bicycles from 2003 to 2018.
Ice Facts #20 Take us to the fuel arch please!
Volunteering for the winter fuels lead position was one of the best and worst decisions I made last summer. On the one hand, it's an experience that I wouldn't be able to make anywhere else in the world, and I've learned so much on a field that I never thought I would be learning anything about in my life. On the other hand: The job is cold, uncomfortable, messy, mostly in the dark, and usually unseen by the rest of the world. It's one of those things, that if you do them right, nobody will ever notice, but if you fuck up, it's a big deal.
The reason I bring up my second life as a fuelie at this point in time, is that stuff is about to get real. During the winter, it's an relatively easy job, but now that we have the first planes on schedule, the fuelies all of a sudden are among the busiest people on station. The flight deck, which you can see in the picture above, does not exist during the winter. After the last plane leaves South Pole at the end of summer, the buildings and tanks are being towed to the "End of the World", a place beyond the berms, to avoid excessive snow drifting around the skiway. So the fuel pit has to be broken down and set back up every year, which is days worth of hard work. It's not the safest job, either: Working outside for hours in a row is cold and exhausting, and you're almost definitely gonna be sprayed with jet fuel. At ambient temperatures like these, that means instant frostbite if the AN8 hits bare skin or soaks through your clothes. Safety goggles are a requirement.
Once the flight deck is set up, 500 gallons have to be re-circulated (that means from the tank through the pump, the meter, the coalescing filter, the lines, the nozzle and back into the tank) and tested for sediments, water and anti-freeze every day with expected aircraft arrivals. That can be quite the messy operation: Pumps, hoses and breaks really hate the cold. Rubber gaskets turn into solid concrete, and sometimes heat-gunning connections over and over again is the only way to get them to seal properly. Even the heater that is supposed to pre-heat the pump house has to be pre-heated with another heater before it can be started - it's a harsh continent.
Neither myself nor my two fellow fuelies Rob and Ta-Lee are fuelies in real life, so all we can do is hope that what we've learned over the year is enough to successfully transit the first aircrafts. They can not fly all the way through to McMurdo, so they rely on us for diesel - and as the fuels lead, I am responsible for getting it to them until the summer fuelies arrive and take over. And yes, that makes me a little nervous to be honest. Especially because the aircrafts are not our only responsibility. We still have to make sure the lights don't go out in Amundsen-Scott. We went through 40 of the 45 10000 gallon tanks we have in the fuel arch beneath the station, so in a little more than five weeks, we're gonna run out. There's emergency tanks sitting at the End of the World, but fingers crossed we get some tanker flights in before we have to use them...
The planes that bring in the first few thousand gallons are the LC-130s or Hercules, who carry it in their own fuel tanks - which is possible because basically everything at South Pole runs on the same stuff that the planes fly with. (In case you are confused: I use the words jet fuel, fuel, diesel and AN8 as equivalents. AN8 is, as far as I know, a fuel mixture unique to the continent, and basically JP8 with anti-freeze additives.)
Even though it's hard and unpaid work, I still love the job. I'm grateful for the experience, and it comes with the bonus of badass hero shots. There's nothing better than a high-five and a beer after a successful day of airfield operation without a spill, and, most importantly: Working in the South Pole fuel pit burns so many calories that you can eat whatever. you. want.
When I was little, I used to get excited about every little snowflake that would fall from the sky in the morning. In the rural, hilly area where I lived, it usually meant that some truck got stuck on some icy road around our village, blocking the way for the school bus, so that all the Niederbonsfeld kids would walk back home to take a snow day off.
At South Pole, and Antarctica in general, there's a lot of snow days. The difference: The school bus is an airplane, and each day of cancelled flights means an overdue replacement, a missed vacation, or lots of unnecessary money spent for somebody, always. Let me give you an example: About a hundred passengers fit into a C-17 Globemaster that shuttles between Christchurch and McMurdo Station. There are about two to three of those flights scheduled per week at this time of the season. Two weeks of weather delays, and all of a sudden you've got over 500 people, some of them sitting in ski resorts an hour away from the completely overbooked city of Christchurch, and another 150 waiting in McMurdo for their return to New Zealand. Now imagine, someone has to pay all those people, pay for their food and lodging, while most of them have no other choice than taking unexpected vacation. There is a big-ass Air Force plane that wants to be maintained and serviced idling in the docks, while at the same time there is a tremendous lack of workforce in McMurdo that is very much not getting the station ready for summer season. Because it is the transit harbour for a dozen other stations and field camps: When McMurdo is down, not a lot is happening anywhere else either, including South Pole. How much money that costs for every single day of cancelled flights? You do the math.
But let's stop looking at the bigger picture for the moment and talk about what all this means for the very small world of the forty winterovers at Amundsen-Scott. It means, there are no fresh apples for yet another day. Ouchh. Isn't life cruel?!
Ironically, in some seasons including this one, South Pole gets fresh fruit before McMurdo does. How? Because unlike McMurdo, some aircrafts come from the other side of the continent. To be exact: From Canada. Before the Air National Guard can fly missions in the massive LC-130s to Pole, there are smaller aircrafts - Baslers and Twinotters operated by the Canadian contractor Kenn Borek Air (KBA) - which can land in colder temperatures, lower visibility and worse skiway conditions. Those planes bring in personnel that helps to prepare the station for the bigger planes. But they can not hold enough fuel to make it from New Zealand to Antarctica, so at the beginning of each summer, they have to fly all the way from Canada through Chile, to Rothera Station on the Antarctic Peninsula over South Pole to McMurdo, which can take them as long as two weeks. Apparently, that's sometimes faster than the five hours from Christchurch to McMurdo.
The first Basler from Canada, and the first plane since February, arrived at South Pole on October 15th, only ten days late. And believe me, marshalling in the vessel that brings the first new faces since ten months makes your heart beat a little higher. Rob and I worked in the fuel pit all day, fought a terrible leak in the hose, spilled about two gallons of jet fuel on the brand new paint job of Basler MKB, but successfully re-fueld it after many cold and exhausting hours on the airfield. I very badly frost-nipped my right hand and nose. But fueling the first plane of the season was what I have been nervous about for weeks, and now that it's done a boulder the size of Denmark has suddenly been lifted from my shoulders.
Later that day, a KBA Twinotter made it to Pole, too. They took off the same time as the Basler, but Twinotters are smaller and slower and have to make a pit stop at Union Glacier field camp to switch their landing gear for skis, whereas the Baslers have their skis attached to the wheels (by the way: The Baslers were built for World War II. No kidding. Since then they got new frames, new engines and new electronics. Last summer, we had a pilot here that flew the same plane as his grandfather). Both crews stayed at Amundsen-Scott overnight. To some winterovers, they symbolize the end of winter and are intruders to the cozy small winterover world - but not to me! I was so excited to talk to some different people about fuels and planes and stuff that I almost forgot how tired the day made me. Man, it feels good to see new faces.
Sol 365! It's been a full year since I first set foot at South Pole. And some aspects of my life certainly bear the weight of the months: After the long time of isolation, all the interaction and conversations with the new people make me extremely tired, even though that is something I usually draw energy from. My immune system has had zero to do for so many weeks that it is now overwhelmed by the threat of germs that came in on the first planes. I am certainly tired of being light-headed and short of breath from the altitude all the time (nope, that never goes away), and so ready to get rid of the omnipresent electrostatics that makes my hair stick to all of my clothes all.the.time.
Other parts of my South Pole life make we wonder how the year can possibly be over so soon. It feels like just a few weeks ago that I met the other winterovers at Fireschool in Denver. A few of them have become family to me, and it hurts to see them leave one by one and not knowing when, or even whether, we're gonna cross paths again. Before a winter's family parts ways though, a very special ceremony is held to acknowledge their courage and sacrifices one last time: The awarding of the Antarctica Service Medal to each intrepid winterover, in addition to a "Wintered Over" pin which is bronze for your first winter, gold for your second and silver for every additional winter spent at the South Pole.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was officially opened for summer with the arrival of the station manager on Thursday. Released from his duties, our winter site manager Marco had time to come up with a little funny roast for all his team members that he read out loud at the medal ceremony.
Surprisingly, the thing I find most noticeable about the newly arrived summer personnel is not their presence in the galley during meal times, or seeing new faces in the hallway. It's the sudden variety of smells. Yes, I can mostly smell that there are new people on station - and I don't mean that in a negative way at all. My guess is that over the winter, there only exist so many different smells on station you get used to in the first few weeks without even noticing. It was totally unexpected to me that of all my senses, smell would be the one that would overflow the most!
This is it. I'm leaving South Pole! At least that's what I'm thinking on my way to breakfast at that beautifully sunny Wednesday morning of November 7th, just to hear the announcement over my radio before I even have the chance to get my first coffee.
Attention South Pole, attention South Pole. This is Comms with a flight update. Basler MKB has cancelled its mission to South Pole due to weather. I repeat: Basler MKB has cancelled its mission to South Pole. Comms out.
Well, that's fair I guess. It does look a little hazy up there, and nobody ever got out of South Pole on schedule anyway. So, here's to another day in paradise? Seventeen of the forty winterovers are still on base, or "leftovers" as we are being called now. Most of them scientists like me, since we have the longest turnovers.
Speaking of turnovers: Johannes' and my replacements, Kathrin and Benjamin, arrived at Pole last Thursday. Since then we've been pretty busy showing them around, setting up their work stations, going over routine procedures and explaining all kinds of frequent detector shenanigans, to get them ready to take over our pagers which officially makes them the new "Guardians of the Cube". I am a little sad, but also relieved - no more hasty runs out to ICL, no more wake up calls in the middle of the night. We had a pretty successful year and it's time to relax a little bit. One of the first things we did was taking a group photo with the rookies on the big snow drift in front of ICL. Turns out, even after a year at altitude I still can't make it up that drift fast enough so that my camera's self timer wouldn't take one epic fail photo after the other. Some of them are so hilarious I just had to share them.
The turnover process was interrupted by a surprise C-17 flight over Pole. The Globemasters are too heavy to land here, so we only see them for airdrops or when they are doing some flyover trainings which was the case this time, only that for some reason they forgot to announce it to anybody.
Since the new fuelies arrived at Amundsen-Scott last week, I was happily released of my fuelie duties. Again, I'm relieved - but to be honest, I also miss being out there, because - who would have thought - hard physical work at extreme negative temperatures is really rewarding. On top of that, I love the crew of Basler MKB who has flown all missions to Pole so far, so I still keep going out to the flight deck every single time to park them. Sometimes in ridiculous outfits.
As a little bonus for all my extra work in the fuel pit over the course of the season, my supervisor granted me a seat on the last Basler flight - which was supposed to be today. But since the LC-130s aren't quite ready to fly yet, I might get another chance tomorrow. I really hope it works out - flying with the Basler would be a dream come true!
But yeah, South Pole seldomly plays along, so who knows when and how I'm eventually getting out of here. I will try to keep myself busy and stay positive. I know from last year's crew that being a leftover can be quite challenging, and now I might get the experience first hand.
Another day, another flight cancellation, another vacation photo of a friend who's already off Ice and enjoying their time in New Zealand. It might seem cynical to some people, but I started counting the days backwards. The longer I get delayed, the slimmer my chances of flying out on a Basler, which right now is really all I want.
Ta-Lee and I started playing "Zelda: Breath of the Wild" again. I beat it in the winter, and it took me over three months. Lets hope I don't get to play all the way through again.
The weather is not on my side. The forecast for the weekend looks terrible both here and in McMurdo. There are five Hercules sitting in Christchurch, and they are all broken. The one that is the least broken was supposed to fly down to McMurdo yesterday, but cancelled for a mechanical caused by a luggage cart that accidentally ran into it. Too funny to be true? Unfortunately not. This morning the Herc actually took off, but boomeranged back to Christchurch half way for reasons nobody can or wants to tell me. Probably hit a swarm of luggage carts over the Southern Ocean.
Anyway, as long as there's no Herc on continent, there's still a chance the MKB crew with their Basler will come and get me which would be the best thing in the world. If only that stupid weather would play along.
Summer people keep telling me it's inappropriate to be so bummed out about not being able to leave. "Oh come on Raffi, you're at the South Pole, there's free food, and a lot of people would pay thousands of dollars to be where you are right now. You've been here for a year, what more is another week?"
Yes, technically, that makes sense. But they just don't know what it's like. Ever been stuck at home for work or for being sick when all of your friends went on vacation without you? Yeah, sucks. Also now imagine that "home" is being claimed, invaded, and made dirty and noisy by a trizillion people you've never seen before, and most of your friends who made it "home" for you already left, with their minds everywhere but with you at the South Pole. "Home" is now a strange place of vulnerability where every little thing reminds you of how great it used to be. But yeah, sure, what more is another week?
Ice Facts #21 Delayed for... reasons.
It's been a while since the last Ice Fact, and I wasn't gonna write another one - but here it is. And what topic could be more called for than flight delays!
So what's the deal with South Pole and airplanes? There's quite a few things that have to play well together in order for an aircraft to land at the bottom of the Earth. There's visibility, temperature, winds, skiway conditions, aircraft functionality, passenger importance, crew rests, air field support, etc. etc. If one of those things is off, then there's no plane, it's as simple as that. So far so good, but sometimes there is just no obvious reason for a plane not to come. For example, when the crew is forced to cancel their flight upon a weather report that is made by some dude at the east coast of the United States, even though the conditions couldn't be more perfect; or when the scheduled Hercules goes on an 24-hour "Maintenance Delay" (what would that even be?!).
I'm certainly not an expert in Antarctic air traffic, and I understand there are rules and regulations. But sometimes I wish they would just explain things a little better. For the sake of a leftover's sanity.
The first time we had decent weather since Thursday. But if the weather or mechanical delays don't screw us over, then McMurdo's Sunday-no-flyfly policy does. But at least there's no building up hopes that are being wrecked last minute by a flight cancellation, so today was all about staying in bed, drinking mimosas and going sledding with the other leftovers, and playing "Zelda" until my eyes hurt.
At this point I want to acknowledge my sixteen friends that are stuck here with me, holding up, holding down, waiting, enduring. Some handle it better than others, mostly because they've been in the situation before, or, well... because they just handle it better. Not a day goes by that you don't see a leftover breaking down in the hallways, having had one too many over missed vacation appointments or losing another day with their family that is waiting in New Zealand. Eric, for example, was supposed to be on the Basler last Monday - but was bumped off because someone else's bags were too heavy. Yes, bags. Janelle has her brother and mother waiting in Christchurch, and Cherisa is approaching the date she booked to hike the Milford Track, which is sold out for months in advance. I myself have friends waiting for me in Brisbane, Australia. But on top of all that, some summer person used my hand towel to do their bathroom housemouse - that's when I reached my breaking point. I need to get out of here. Long story short, the only thing that keeps us all sane is the support of our fellow leftovers. We're having our own little team building experience in being left behind, probably the strongest any one of us ever experienced.
I'm looking forward to spending a couple of days in McMurdo, maybe meet a few people I know and enjoy a little bit of Antarctica scenery for - most likely - the last time. I'm not quite ready for the real world yet, but I'm positive that McMurdo's social speed will help me transition.
By the way, as far as I know the latest South Pole ever went without a single Herc is November 11th. The Air Guard is about to break another record.
I've never felt anything like this ever before in my life. The urge to leave, to follow my winterover family to the promised land of lush and green and liquid water; but at the same time the urge to hold on to a grounding rail as tight as I can so that they can not take me away from my home. Not only can I hear the aircraft that is still clouded in ground fog and station exhaust, I can feel the low-frequency BRRRRRRMMMMMMMM of the throttling engines in my stomach as the monster is approaching the apron from down the skiway. It should appear from out of the haze any second now. ... Any second now. I've worked more than twenty of these over the course of my fuelie carrier, but maybe the fact that I haven't seen one in almost a year makes me nervous? ... Who am I kidding. I am nervous because this is the plane that takes me away, away from this special place that I was desperate to leave for many days but now makes me wanna cry and run and hide under my bed. Of course it's not my job anymore, but they let me park the plane I am leaving in. Because I asked for it. My last wish, so to say. Slowly I start walking backwards, waving the red paddles in my hands in a "follow-me" motion as the 32 brand-new, razor sharp propeller blades dissipate the cloud of blowing snow and unveil the nose of the LC-130 Hercules in front of me.
The plane is not off-loading much fuel and doesn't take a lot of cargo despite the luggage of fifteen leftovers, so there's not much time for pouting. I won't even get the chance to properly say hello and goodbye to my supervisor Ralf, who came in on that flight and has been watching over me in a godfatherly manner throughout the whole year.
Attention South Pole, attention South Pole. All outgoing passengers are asked to proceed to the flight deck immediately. I repeat: Outgoing passengers, proceed to the flight deck immediately or you will be left behind. Comms out.
"Left behind doesn't sound so terrible anymore", is my last thought before I am being rushed out the door, my orange duffle bag over my shoulder, and stumbling up the snowdrift that leads back to the flight deck. A few people are assembled here to say goodbye, among them the five last winterover souls that will not leave on this plane.
At this point it's futile to fight back tears, and I know nobody is judging as the waterfalls freeze to my cheeks. Most of these folks are, or have been, in my place before, and everybody else shall get their glance at what it's like. What it's like, for a winterover, to leave South Pole.
The hardest part about being a South Pole winterover? Not being a South Pole winterover. They don't tell you how difficult it is. They don't tell you how to prepare. They just throw you back into the real world and expect you to function like you've never left.
This step might be experienced differently from person to person, but in my case, it hit me really hard. I was expecting a couple days that would give me time to adjust in McMurdo, the transit harbour of Antarctica. But I wasn't given more than a few hours - way too short of a time to say hello, and goodbye, to all the people I know there. I managed to stop by the fuels barn, and luckily ran into the KBA pilots who I was hoping to fly out of Pole with in the first place - having a beer with them was the second best thing to happen. Most of my time in McMurdo I spent with my good friend Trotter, enjoying the mild, snowy, quirky atmosphere of this little town.
Anyway, I was pulled out of this world way to soon. After a five hour flight on the Globemaster, which for the first time I was hoping to get cancelled, I found myself in a windowless hotel room in Christchurch, crying into my sheets for not knowing what the hell to do with myself now - realising that I was done being a South Pole winterover, done being a guardian of IceCube, done being a firefighter, done being a hydroponic gardener, done being an Antarctic fuelie. All that I've known for a year was suddenly over.
And believe me, it's hard to enjoy traveling when you don't know where home is. Or better: Knowing where it is but also knowing you can't go back. I seriously considered buying a ticket straight back to Germany, bailing on my travel plans and on my friend who met me in New Zealand. From the distance of two weeks that I'm writing this, I'm glad I didn't. Trotter helped me out a lot without knowing: Back in McMurdo, he gave me a fire house challenge coin as a gift, that says "Antarctica's Bravest". And in my worst struggles, I decided to be that, and to pull through. And it worked.
However, as another good friend told me: "But beware. Antarctica will always be with you and it will always pull at you. The desire to return home never goes away." It pulls, for sure. But I regained enough confidence to be able to ignore that pull for a while, to find a place to live, to start my PhD program as planned, to maybe start my own greenhouse as my next big project. And then, at some point, in a few years, to go back.
Back to the magic world of ice, where the sun never sets in the summer.