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 is in English (sorry Mama!). The journal entries are sorted by date, earliest 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.
Ice Facts nō 1: South Pole seasons
Antarctica is huge. Huge meaning, you could fit the entire continent of Europe into it, and still would have several Germany-sized areas to spare. The reason that many people are completely unfamiliar with Antarctica, is that the polar regions are usually heavily distorted in most representations, leaving Antarctica as a fuzzy white blob at the lower edge of the map. Here's what it actually looks like:
The South Pole is located right in the middle of the Antarctic Plateau, surrounded by thousands of miles of icy desert. Most traffic to the South Pole is by aircraft, via transit in McMurdo Station at Ross Island.
At the South Pole, life works a little differently than what most of us 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, well, no 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. Read an introduction to IceCube below!
Ice Facts nō 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!
Ice Facts nō 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 ;)
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 7: Let's talk about the 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.
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 11: South Pole Sectors
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.
Ice Facts nō 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!
Ice Facts nō 13: South Pole weather (again!)
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
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 15: EAT THE FOOOD!!
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!
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.
Ice Facts nō 17: Growing food in a desert of ice
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.
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 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 ;)
Ice Facts nō 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.
Ice Facts nō 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.