Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas at Palmer Station

It's the usual affair; tree, decorations, and a giant meal.

But the greatest present we got wasn't under the tree; it was in the form of a strong north wind, which served to FINALLY blow all the ice far out to sea, hopefully to be long gone. 

It was just in time, too; the first cruise ship of the season was able to send people ashore for the usual tour and meet-and-greet.

As a joke this guy asked us if we had an accordion on station, but because this place is strange like that, we actually do.  So he proceeded to serenade us with some polish polka music, which is about as normal as anything else that happens here.

December 25th, while officially Christmas, wasn't when we celebrated the holiday.  Due to the way the work week is here, and the visit of the cruise ship, the 25th was a normal work day for us.  Our actual celebration was done on the 26th, when we had our feast and the start of a two-day weekend.

And then fell into the sweet, loving arms of diabetes.

(Sorry if I couldn't muster much enthusiasm for this post, I'm not really a fan of Christmas and holidays in general.  Sort of a scrooge, I suppose.  Stop by tomorrow for pictures of cute animals, which I know is what you actually want)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry christmas to me . . .

Among the gifts I didn't want to receive this Christmas eve was the appearance of kitchen waste and turds burping up from the floor drain in the mechanical room; the sewer line was clogged again.

Last time this happened it was a plugged macerator, but everything down the line from this drain was flowing fine; there was a clog somewhere in between the mechanical room in the Bio-Lab building, and the Aquarium which was still draining without issues.  This meant . . . that I was going to go crawling under the building.  I prepared myself in the only way you can; put on your rain gear and duct tape your pants to your boots, because you're going wading in . . . well, you know.

To make things more complicated, we still don't have a long snake on station; the only snake we have is a 5-foot hand snake, and while we've ordered a long power snake, it's probably not going to get here for a few months.   The only thing I had to work with was this hundred foot long spool of what amounted to over-sized fish tape.

I did luck out in that we were able to get to the clean-out without problems; I was worried I'd have to go crawling under the building to get to one further up the line, but when we opened up this one about 20 feet down from the backing up drain, we got the small geyser of raw sewage to indicate that the clog was still down stream from here.  As much as I never though I'd say it . . . I was pretty happy to see that fountain of shit.  At least it was in a nice open area where we could avoid the spray, as opposed to being wedge under the foundation at the other clean out, praying to god you're up to date on all your immunizations.

The head on this auger tape thing isn't much larger than a roll of dimes, so even after shoving it ~30 feet down the pipe and feeling the clog, it took me the better part of an hour to break up whatever was down there.

I was having fantasies about a big power snake; a nice 1/2 horsepower unit with hundred foot spool and a big three inch auger on the end of it.  But it wasn't to be, and I got to spend my morning feeding this fish tape in and out of the drain line, mashing up whatever was down there enough to get the poop flowing again.

This is what I quit a desk job on a tropical island for.  It's still the best decision I ever made.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Solstice

We're just slightly north of the Antarctic Circle, so while we never got the official 24 hours of sunlight . . . I don't think you'd call what we do have "night".

It's been at least a couple of months since we've seen the stars and as happened last year, I've slightly forgotten what real darkness is.  If possible, click through to Youtube and watch that in HD; it's worth it.

It's not the first time I've been called a dummy

Of all the jobs I have to do every day, I think "Lay still and act unconscious" has to be the easiest.

Unfortunately because they had to keep rescuing me over and over, by the time they got me down to our little medical clinic, I had died.

But as long as they had a fresh corpse to practice on, our medical team figured they might as well practice.

They started by taking a bunch of stuff out of me:

And then putting stuff into me:

I think Clair was a bit too excited at the prospect of getting to stab me.

And due to all of their hard work, I recovered and am now alive!  Sometimes it's annoying being the guy on station with the most easily accessible veins.

Monday, December 9, 2013

We're getting really sick of all this beautiful weather

Palmer Station, like most of Antarctica, is infamous for it's wind and terrible weather; 88% of our days here are overcast, we average 11 feet of snowfall per year and wind gusts over 80mph aren't uncommon.  On the rare occasions that we get a day of clear and calm weather, it's almost a cause for station-wide celebration.  Everyone hurries to get done the outdoor work that requires calm weather, and we'll all go have lunch up on the decking for the new Haz Waste storage area.

Million dollar views, but the furniture arrangement needs some work.

For most of the last month, the sea ice had been a major problem; it was frozen so solid in early November that even our ice-reinforced supply ship (The Lawrence M. Gould, or just the LMG) couldn't punch it's way through.  It made it to within two miles of station but just couldn't get any farther, even after a couple days of repeated ramming.

Eventually they gave up and turned back north, heading to Chile.  This left us with five extra people that we weren't supposed to have; they had intended to go back north on that ship, and now they would be here for another month.

This wasn't a problem until the LMG returned a couple weeks ago (after the ice had thinned out enough that it could push through), bringing with it even more scientists and some specialized construction workers.  These new additions swelled our population to 48 people, in spite of there being only 43 available beds on station.  Temporary accommodations were made wherever they could be; some people slept in tents, others in linen closets, some in a disused science building up the hill, anywhere that could be found.

And yet even in that month since the LMG left those extra people here, the sea ice still hasn't gone away.  It's thinned out plenty, thin enough that the ship can easily punch it's way through to station, but far too much to allow zodiac operations.  We had a couple of days, a few precious days, where we had enough open water that some science could happen (my room mate actually won the pool on the first day of active boating science), and a few bouts of the local wildlife showing it's face again.

Living someplace where you can find yourself in close proximity to penguins every day is exactly as strange as you imagine it to be.  They don't have any land based predators and as such have never developed any fear of humans, although they are skittish as most birds are.  They seem to view us and our station as a curiosity; they saunter around like they own the place, which according to the Antarctic Conservation Act, I guess they do.

But those few days of sort-of open water didn't last; the winds blew all of the sea ice back in a couple weeks ago, and since then we've had the longest stretch of calm weather that anyone on station can remember.  Most of the days have been clear and sunny with the winds barely peaking over 5mph, and some being completely still.  It's a nice opportunity to take care of some of the tasks around here that require this sort of weather, such as the yearly painting of the handrails.

As beautiful as the calm weather is, it means the ice that was blown back in is still here; it's not frozen solid and the LMG can push through, but our Zodiacs wouldn't stand a chance.

The problem is that the small amounts of winds we've gotten have all been out of the south, blowing all the ice flows right into us.  There's a giant pack that's gotten stuck on the whole southern edge of the island that our station is on, and until we get some strong northerly winds, it's not going anywhere.

Being iced in for such prolonged periods of time is incredibly rare, especially this late in the season.  Usually a combination of warm weather and north winds would have taken care of this already, but not this year.

So that was our situation; unable to do most of our science with five more people than we can technically hold, and the LMG not going north until the middle of December, still a couple weeks away.  And yet . . . it's possible to get out of this station in another manner, if one is incredibly lucky.

The National Geographic "Explorer" is the first cruise ship of the summer to swing by our station, and our five leftovers were fortunate enough to hitch a ride home.  It's not entirely uncommon; quite a number of both science and support personnel have either arrived or departed on cruise ships.  It's not a cheap means of getting people to and from station, but given how expensive operating the LMG is (I've heard ballparks of $35,000 per day), it's often the less costly option if just a few people need to be transported.

Usually when these smaller (sub-200) passenger ships stop by we'll let everyone come ashore in Zodiacs as we give them a tour of the station, to let people see what real science in Antarctica looks like.  And even though the sea ice prevented everyone from coming ashore, the ship got as close as they safely could so we could all take pictures and shout greetings back and forth.

So while it was disappointing that the tourists couldn't come ashore for a visit, getting five people and their stuff over?  That we could manage!

The ship got as close to our pier as they safely could, and cast a line ashore.  To this line was attached an inflatable kayak, which was pulled back and forth to move the luggage on board (I'm the one in the video pulling the shore-side of the line, wearing the orange life vest).  Eventually the ship's bow thruster cleared enough of the ice that a Zodiac could be dropped into the water; one of the shortest zodiac trips in history got everyone aboard in no time flat.

That's where we currently stand; we're at maximum population now, but at least everyone has a real bed.  We've got the LMG coming back to station next week to take even more people out of here, dropping our population down into the low 30s until next year.  Trying to forcast the weather any more than a couple days in the future here is impossible due to the frequently changing conditions, but word is that some storms are brewing in the Drake; with any luck, they'll give us the north winds we need to clear all this ice out.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sunday, December 1, 2013

It happens every season

Somewhere in my employment contract that I signed to come down here there exists a clause that reads "At least once per season, you must fix something that involves direct contact with poop."  Last year it was a fairly tame wax ring replacement on a toilet, and then in the fall I found myself crawling under a building in an area that we'd had a seweage spill a month prior.  None of it's fun, but it's part of the job and I get done what needs to get done, but last week was a fix that pushed the boundries of what I could stomach.

At 8am on Tuesday we got an alarm in our office; the floor-mounted water sensor had tripped in the aquarium, indicating that something down there was flooding.  Usually this is a fish tank overflowing or something else minor, but when we got there we found it was much worse; raw sewage was backing up from the drain and flooding the floor.  The aquarium is the lowest point in our drainage system; everything goes under the building, and then immediately out to the masticator and then to be dispersed into the ocean.  This means that if there's a problem down stream, the aquarium is going to be the first place that everything starts backing to.

There was a moment of panic among three of us as we stood in the aquarium, watching bits of TP and . . . other stuff burble up through the floor drain and start sloshing around the equipment, wondering what the hell we could do before this got worse.  Obviously, the main sewer line for the whole station was completely plugged up somewhere downstream, but we don't have a long snake on station right now and even if we did, the nearest clean-out is still buried under ten feet of snow and ice.

I don't have moments of brilliance very often, and when they strike it's usually completely random and about something quite useless.  But today, my usually scumbag brain performed perfectly and going off a random spur-of-the-moment hunch, I ran down to processing hut and cranked open the second masticator.

All of the sewage, in fact anything that goes down the drains on station, has to pass through one of these things before it's dispersed into the ocean.  Masticators, macerators, delumpers, whatever you want to call them, they do the same job; they grind and mash up any solid materials into a slurry so it can be more easily broken down by the enviroment.  We have two of them for redundancy; we usually switch them over once a month to give each unit a break, and so we can do preventive maintinence and servicing.  However, they're in parallel on the same line; there's only a Y-junction, not a Y-valve separating them.  Because of this, we make do with an individual gate valve in front of each unit.

My hunch turned out to be exactly right; the instant I powered up and opened the gate valve on the second masticator, everything in the flooding aquarium went back down the drain.  The invevitable conclusion being that something was either stuck in the first masticator or gate valve . . . and I was going to have to fix it.

But again, because it's just a Y-junction, and not a Y-valve, there's no way to shut off the sewage flow to this unit; at least some stuff was going to be going to it, even if the bulk of the material was passing through the other running unit.  I'd get to work on this . . . uh, live.  Or fresh.  Or . . . whatever you want to call it, I can't ask everyone to stop pooping for a day.

Just the act of getting this thing open required some doing; the only easy access was to take the head off the gate valve and see what I could see, but that head weighs about 150lbs and was likely going to be rusted in place.  I bolted some angle iron to the studs in the walls and then braced a 4x4 between them, to give me a good anchor point for a cable winch to lift the valve up with.

After a lot of cranking on the winch, much finangling and a few bouts of persuasion with a sledgehammer, the whole assmebly pulled free and I could get it up out of the way, so I could get into the pipe and see what was going on.

The smell was exactly as you'd expect; I worked on this while holding my breath, leaping out to the door every thirty seconds for a breath of air before going back in.  It was revolting beyond explanation; the few times I did inhale, even through my mouth, I had to force myself not to gag.

You came to this blog looking for pictures of penguins, didn't you?
What I found in there was a softball-sized wad of material that must have been growing for a while, mostly held together with something white and fibrous.  Tampons, or maybe a rag, or paper towels, to be honest I don't know and I don't care.  It was in there, and I had to deal with it.  With some shoulder-length rubber gloves and a rubber scraper I reached in there and broke it up, then shoved it down the pipe to the mastication blades (which I was kicking over manually with my foot on the pulley on the outside of the pipe) where it could be ground up and go away. 

I threw away the non-metal tools that I used on this; the gloves, scrapers, everything went into a big plastic bag and then to the solid waste milvan.  No amount of cleaning could ever make me feel good about using something that I'd used for that ever again, but this is my job.  I was pointed at a broken peice of machinery, and I made it not broken anymore.  I took it apart, found what was wrong, put it all back together so that once again, people may poop and push the toilet handle, and never have to worry about where the poop goes.

Well, they might not have to worry about it, but I and many other people like me do.  So please, to anyone reading this, for the love of all that is good and holy in the world: If it didn't come from your body, it doesn't go in the potty.