Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Still iced in

It's unusual for the ocean to still be frozen this late in the season (At least, it's unusual for this day and age.  100 years ago, it would be more common).  A combination of very cold temperatures and winds out of the south have served to keep the entire archipelago frozen solid; not enough to safely walk on, but there's still no boating and limited science happening because of it.  The last week has been particularly bitter; some days not getting above 10F and with some very biting winds blowing snow from the south.  It makes for some amazing sunsets.

But a couple nights ago the weather patterns shifted drastically.  A massive northern storm moved in and brought with it much warmer air, but also a few hours of ridiculous winds.

(Please excuse the volume that got derped into the screenshot)

It hasn't been enough to completely empty the harbors yet, but it's getting close.  Huge fissures are forming in sheets of ice and I think that sometime in the next few days, it's all going to let go and blow out.

As for me, I'm doing what I always do.  Figuring out how to fix things that I previously had no idea how to fix.

Who would have thought a childhood spend taking stuff apart would have given me a clue as how to put them back together?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We're all still here

The ship has gone north, but it's left everyone behind.

Usually our long and slow logistical chain to station is a source of frustration and annoyance, but in the instance of the government shutdown, it seems to have saved most of our bacon.  Congress managed to un-stick itself literally the day before the LMG was supposed to depart station and take most of the support and all of the science with it, and at the last minute we got the order from on high to suspend implementation of Caretaker Status.  Meaning that we'd all get to stay, we kept our jobs and the science will mostly happen as normal (at least in the short term).  People on the other side of the continent weren't so lucky; a fair number of them had already been flown home, and I've got no information or word on what's happening over there currently.

For us there was the minor annoyance of having to un-load from the ship many things that we had just spent a few days loading, but compared to the "minor annoyance" of having no science and no jobs, I think it was a task we were quite happy about.

Although we're technically in spring, seasonally we're still in the grips of winter.  The winds have been out of the south for the last few days and have kept the temperatures in the single digits, only occasionally peaking up into the teens.  The ocean has frozen over again, not quite enough to walk on but enough that the ship had to cut a channel on it's way out.

Life has mostly returned to normal now; the LMG is back in PA and should be on it's normal resupply schedule, the scientists are all here and are doing what science they can with the ocean still frozen.  As for me, I'm back to my usual job; figuring out how to fix things that I didn't previously know how to fix.

Every day is an adventure of new dirty broken things.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Everyone, meet Steve.

Photo credit to Fran Shiel

Equal parts warmed-over hippy, musician and generally cool-as-hell old dude, Steve is our station's carpenter and he proudly hasn't shaved since he was a teenager.  His ZZ-Top style beard makes him the automatic winner of any sort of facial hair contest on station, and just a few days ago was his birthday.  So in addition to him getting a surprise showing of "Good ol' Freda" complete with "cheeze" nachos, a couple days ago he walked into the galley to find that the majority of the station had planned well in advance.

Happy birthday, Steve!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

News from around the internet

Not a real update today, things are mostly the same as they were a couple days ago here, although the weather's gotten worse (gusts over 60mph, freezing rain and sleet, weeeee!).  In case you haven't seen them, here's some articles from other places around the internet about what's going on down here right now, and it's possible long term consequences.

An unprecedented Antarctic disaster, unfolding in darkness - Huffington Post

Why shutting down US Antarctic research will have global repercussions - Wired

Thanks to the Government shutdown, it's about to get real lonely in Antarctica - Slate

Tales from the Shutdown - grad student frozen out of research - -Written about someone who's here right now

Ice white and blue - Contains Offensive Language - Written by a support worker on the other side of the continent.

Lastly, I do apprecaite everyone's comments, e-mails and words of support.  I may not have a chance to respond to everyone, but I absolutly do read every message that I get.

To the numerous readers who've e-mailed me asking if there's anything they can do (besides calling your reps in congress and giving them an earful), check out the Facebook group "Ice friends helping ice friends". You can join it to get more info and post if you have someplace to stay, or even better, a line on some work.  There's a few thousand very highly skilled and dedicated workers who are going to be back on the job market, and any leads you can provide are appreciated.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Life goes on

Not much to report here at Palmer; the ship is still here for the next few days and on the surface at least, life is continuing as normal.  The scientists that came down on the ship are frantically scrambling to get any data collection done that they can, but it's not nearly enough to offset how catastrophic this is for them.  Many of the researches that were coming in for the summer are grad students working on Masters or PhD programs; having the rug pulled out from under them like this puts their degrees in jeopardy. Their thesis projects, which many have put many years of work into planning and researching, were relying on the data that was to be collected this field season.  Without that data, they've got nothing.  No thesis, and consequently no degree.

On the support side, we're doing everything we can; cargo needs to be moved as usual, but most of it is going in the wrong direction.  We expected to be unloading things from the ship, not packing it up.

Most people are maintaining their sanity by focusing on only what's directly in front of them, the work that needs to be done right now.  The ship is currently scheduled to depart station on Thursday the 16th, to arrive back in Chile on the 20th or 21st.  After everyone is flown back to the US, I know many people are at a loss for what they're going to do.

Many of the people that work here, especially on the support side of things, are experienced workers who are accustomed to the contract lifestyle.  We work for a season, save everything we make while working, and then rely on the money we save while working to get us through the off season.  Then come September/October as the money is running out, it's time to go back to work.  So this comes at the worst possible time for us; people were only just able to start building their reserves back up, and now are being sent back to a very uncertain future.  Most of us don't even have "homes" to go back to, or have already rented out their houses or ended leases on apartments.

And things are still changing, hour by hour.  The number of people staying on station has been raised to 12, and possibly 13; we're getting conflicting numbers from different sources and much of this is still being worked out.

For as many issues as we're having at Palmer, this is nothing compared to the logistical nightmare that's going on right now on the other side of the planet, at South Pole, McMurdo and Christchurch.   The constant flow of cargo and equipment from the US to McMurdo has seized up, resulting in logjams of parts and materials piling up at the logistics checkpoints with no one sure what to do with them.  Hundreds of incoming workers are idled in Christchurch ("Cheech") while they await their fates on if they'll be needed down south, or if they'll be sent back to their points of origin.  Numerous groups have sprung up on Facebook, including "Ice friends helping Ice friends", for current and former workers to assist each other in finding places to stay, finding some sort of work, and generally to support to each other in these chaotic times. 

So we take things hour by hour.  I want to end this on some kind of uplifting note, to say something positive about how we'll all get through this and it'll be fine.  But I'm not sure it will be.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"May you live in interesting times."

The official word has come down from on high;  We're being put into caretaker mode, and science is effectively shut down for the rest of the season.

From the above link: "Under caretaker status, the USAP will be staffed at a minimal level to ensure human safety and preserve government property, including the three primary research stations, ships and associated research facilities. All field and research activities not essential to human safety and preservation of property will be suspended."

For us here at Palmer, that means a reduction to just 11 people who are considered essential to keeping the station functioning; fortunately for me, I am one of them.  I will be staying on station for the foreseeable future, likely though the rest of the season, to maintain the buildings for when science can start back up.  But all of the scientists and science support personnel (like our lab manager, and instrument technician) are being sent home.

The LMG after docking at our pier yesterday evening

Our resupply ship arrived last night, bringing with it our bi-annual load of food and fuel, along with what was supposed to be the majority of the scientists and their equipment for the season.  But now that's all changed; everyone who came down on the ship is going to be getting right back on to head north, along with 2/3rds of the people already living on station.  My prior calculations about bunk spaces on the LMG were incorrect; seemingly in anticipation of this situation, they added an additional berthing milvan into the ship's cargo bay.  This brings their total passenger capacity to 38, allowing them to remove everyone from station except for 11 people, including myself, who have been deemed critical to life safety and preservation of property.

Along with myself, our power plant mechanic, electrician, and another building maintenance mechanic will be staying on station to fill all the construction and mechanic rolls.  We'll be joined by our SatComms tech, a single IT person, one cook, our doctor, a waste tech, science tech, and our station manager. 

The ship is going to stay on station for a week and a half, with the current plan to have it depart on the 16th or even a couple days later.  This is to give us enough time to complete the transition to caretaker mode, time to get everything and everyone onto the ship that has to be.  There was a lot of science equipment and supplies that were sent down in the past few months to be staged for the incoming science groups, but now it's not needed and has to get out of here.

There are still a thousand questions up in the air that we don't have answers to, as this is an unprecedented situation and no one is quite sure of how it's going to end.  When is the resupply boat going to make another trip down?  What will happen if Congress un-sticks itself and money comes back in?  Will the other support people be brought back?  How many science personnel could return?  How will we interact with the planned cruise ship visits over the summer?  When will we get to leave, and how?

It's all a perfect example of the ancient Chinese blessing/curse: "May you live in interesting times".

Monday, October 7, 2013

Shutdown update

Not much solid information yet, but a quick update none the less.

We've gotten information that the USAP is rapidly running out of money.  I've heard different numbers getting thrown around, but it seems that the current funds will run out by the end of this coming week.  After that, the only money available will be emergency funds for use on critical life safety items only; no more science, no business as usual. This is the busiest and most expensive time of the year for the program, and the shutdown couldn't have come at a worse time. Pole only JUST opened for the summer, they got a couple of Twin Otters in but they haven't been able to leave yet due to adverse weather at McMurdo.  They still need to do the yearly station resupply and refuel, just to keep it operating even at bare minimum capacity.  Even McMurdo has barely opened, and they haven't started their yearly resupply either.

Here at Palmer, we're in out own complicated situation.  We're far too small to have an airstrip, so our only transportation on and off station is our resupply ship, the R/V Lawrence M Gould (The LMG).  It left Chile on Friday and should be getting here on Tuesday the 8th, bringing with it our bi-yearly load of frozen food and fuel.  Fortunately that got bought before the shut down happened, and for the most part this boat trip is unaffected. But I feel like if the station shut down happens, they're going to try and get as many people out of here as they can on this cruise.

The problem is that even at their maximum capacity, there isn't enough room for everyone on the boat.  My figures show that even if they fill every available space, 17 people would have to be left on station.  If that many people have to stay, I think they'll probably leave me here, at least for now.

What happens after that, I'm not sure anyone has any idea about.  The ships are hugely expensive to operate; the LMG alone is $35,000 per day, the Natty-B is far more, and each round-trip from Chile to Palmer and back is usually around $400,000.  It's a gigantic chunk of the USAP's budget, and it makes sense that they'll want to shut them down if possible.  But that leaves us with very limited/no options for getting the rest of us off station, or getting more supplies to us during the summer.  So perhaps they'd run the LMG back down for another trip to get the rest of us, or delay the next trip until much later.

I've got no clue what's going to happen next, and I don't think anyone else does either.  But given that this government shutdown doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon, something is going to happen.  We're just waiting to find out what that is.

The NSF still hasn't made a decision, but they've told us to expect one early this week.  No one is sure what to expect, but it's seeming more and more likely that science will be severely curtailed for the rest of the season at all three stations.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Shutdown; what's in store for us?

The news is awash with the shutdown of the US Federal Government this week, and as it looks like it's going to drag on for a while, we're trying to take stock of our situation.  We exist in a grey zone of not-federal-employees, but still working for a government program, so none of us are quite sure how this is going to play out.

As it currently stands, the USAP secured one last round of funding on September 30th, the day before the government shut down, which at standard procurement levels should last us through mid-October.  All purchasing and ordering has been frozen with the exception of critical life safety items and the bulk of that money has been earmarked for salaries, to make sure it can be stretched as far as possible.  So in the short-term, most of us are still okay, and will be for the next couple of weeks.  And as long as this thing gets straightened out before then, almost all science should continue as usual for the season, and we (at least the support crew here at Palmer) should be mostly unaffected.

However, if this drags on for more than a week or two, things are going to get complicated. 

The contract overseer, Lockheed Martian, pays us (the workers) with money that it gets from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is almost completely shut down right now.  While they (Lockheed) have enough money to pay us through mid/late October, once that money runs out, as long as the NSF/Federal government is still shuttered, Lockheed won't be getting any more. The majority of us on station are seasonal workers; we've signed contracts with either Lockheed or another company that promises us a specified wage as long as we're on station and working.

This would put Lockheed (or whichever company) in a position of being obligated to pay us out of their own pocket, even though they won't have any money coming in with which to do so.  And I'm quite sure that's not a position they want to be in.

If this shutdown looks like it will continue for more than a couple weeks, the plan is to begin an orderly transition to caretaker status at all of the stations.  Almost all science would be shut down, all science personnel would be sent off the ice, and the vast majority of support workers would be sent home as well.  I've heard different stories on how low they'd try and get the population; one rumor is that they'd go down to winter status, which for Palmer means ~15 people.  In that case, I'd probably stay.  However, I've also heard that they'd get the station down to an absolutely bare-bones skeleton crew; just enough to keep the buildings warm and prevent them from completely falling apart.  In that situation, the station would be down to 8 or 9 people; I would not be one of them.

This sort of operation would have very negative consequences and the longer we'd be in it, the longer it would take to recover from.  The logistical chain of supplying science down here is something that is often planned years in advance, and having a complete freeze-up would mean that many projects would have to go back to the drawing board.  A lot of experiments here are very seasonally dependent; the phytoplankton are going to breed exactly when they want to, they don't care if the government is shut down.  If the researchers miss the narrow window with which to start their work, the whole season is effectively written off.

That's where we currently stand; as long as this lasts just a week or so, we'll probably be okay, most things will continue as normal.  But if this lasts for two or three weeks, I might be getting a flight home much sooner than expected.