Sunday, March 30, 2014

The end of the season.

Here I sit in the lounge, typing on my laptop for my last night on Palmer Station, possibly ever.  The LMG got here early this week and we've been busy with turnover; swapping out crews and offloading cargo.  We're sailing north tomorrow, taking the summer crew out across the Drake Passage, expecting to arrive in Chile on April 4th.

It's been a long season, a strange season.  The mess with the government shutdown seems like a lifetime ago.  There's still so many pictures, so many stories I have to tell about life on the ice, but it seems I am out of time.

So for this last post from Antarctica, I'll put up the lastest time-lapse.  Similar to my Ice and Clouds compilation from the middle of the season, it's a montauge of sequences that I've captured over the last seven months on the ice.

So full-screen it, turn on your speakers and enjoy.  And watch in the highest resolution you can.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


"Most of the science here involves chucking really expensive things into the ocean and hoping that you get them back"

The Slocum gliders are an ongoing project primarily through Rutgers university, using these underwater robots that resemble yellow torpedoes to collect data that would not be realistically possible to collect manually.  They're essentially drones; dropped into the ocean and left alone to follow a pre-programmed course, they propel themselves at about 0.5mph by subtly adjusting their buoyancy to alternately dive and resurface, "gliding" through the water.  Due to this very efficient (although slow) means of propulsion, their batteries can last for extremely long lengths of time.  Even in these cold waters they can be alone in the ocean for up to three weeks, and sometimes more depending on their payload.

The gliders are modular; they have cargo bays that can be fitted with a wide variety of different instruments, to continually monitor and log data such as salinity, clarity, temperature, dissolved gasses, particulate matter and so on.  They're guided by GPS and surface every few hours, linking up with satellites via an antenna in their tail to upload their data and check for new instructions.

In addition to being heavy (about 150lbs), they're not cheap; the base glider alone runs about $150,000, and depending on the instrument packages they put on board they can end up costing near $250,000.  A huge amount of that cost comes from having to ensure military-grade reliability and components that must to function perfectly in extremely diverse environments.  You cell phone might be able to do a lot of crazy things, but if it breaks you just swear and drive to the store and buy a new one.  That's often not an option for the gliders; by the time they're being deployed, additional hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on design, transportation and logistics to get them to the launch point.  That's not when you want to have to scrap the project because someone decided to save a few bucks by using a slightly cheaper design of power regulator.

And yet, something so expensive is dropped into the ocean and left alone, with the hope that it'll come back when it's told.  So the next time you think your car insurance is expensive, just imagine what these guys are probably paying and how the conversation with their agent would go.

"Hey, so we lost our $250,000 robot"
"Lost?  When and where did you last see it?"
"Well we threw it into the middle of the ocean a few weeks ago..."

(And yes, the mountains really were amazing that day)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

One last good day of boating (and fur seals)

The season is drawing to an end for us; McMurdo and South Pole station have already closed for the winter and with the LMG just having docked, we're turning over this week.  The weather has started to take a turn as well; many of the last few weeks have seen sustained winds of over 50mph, some gusts over 60mph.

The daylight is fading as well; night time has returned in full force, and with the sun setting earlier and earlier our boating opportunities after work are getting quite limited.  So when our one day off a week dawned with clear sky and brilliant weather, we had to get out onto the water one more time.

Home sweet home

The first stop was Breaker Island, to drop off Glen.  The landing site there looks like a nearly shear vertical cliff, but once you get up close you see there's enough ledges to act as a nice staircase up to the top.

We then made our way over to Old Palmer, the island where the first Palmer Station (Called Base N at the time) was constructed in the late 1950s.  It was used for only a few years before it was decided to select a new station location on the other side of the harbor, to be able to give deep-water ship access rather than having to transfer all cargo ashore with small boats.  The old station was kept around in some form as a backup facility for a couple of decades, before finally being removed in the 80s.  Now all that's left are some of the concrete pads that ones supported buildings or equipment, as well as the blue barrels of a survival cache of emergency supplies (in case anyone gets stuck out here when bad weather rolls around)

While we might not have use for the area, the fur seals have taken over the place and decided these nice, flat, warm rocks make excellent sleeping pads.

In fact, now that winter is setting in and they're returning from their summer grounds, the whole area of "Old Palmer" is nearly overrun with them.

Fur seals are aggressive animals, and extremely territorial.  They're almost perpetually fighting with each other, and will usually give warning growls and barks if another seal gets within a few feet.

But for the most part, as long as everyone keeps their distance, they're content to spend most of their time sleeping and being adorable.

Something tells me they wouldn't appreciate a belly rub

All of these shots were taken with an extremely long lens; fur seals aren't only aggressive towards each other, they're not fond of humans either.  In contrast to the docile elephant seals who don't care about anything smaller than them (which isn't much), fur seals will frequently bark and even charge at people who are quite a significant distance away.  It's purely a bluff: the proper way to deal with it is to take a couple of rapid steps towards them, while shouting as nastily as you can.  Without fail, this puts them in their place and they can go back to being adorable.

After having our fill of taking pictures of the cute puppy dogs with flippers instead of paws, we made our way around them and headed inland, up through a valley and towards the glacier.

Sean, DoJo and a few other people headed to an area on the other side of the island formerly know as Lover's Lane, and I headed up the hills onto the small northern plateau.

For the few months per year that this area is mostly clear of snow, it's achingly beautiful.  You can be forgiven for thinking that Antarctica is a barren wasteland of white.  Most of it is, but here on the Western Peninsula, you can find the occasional haven of green.

The poor drainage from up here gives plenty of pools of standing water, giving home to large sheets of moss and hearty grass.  Earlier in the season this area is a popular nesting site for many flighted seabirds; the guano probably helps matters as well.

What a planet this is!

Note the person in the background silhouetted by the hills for scale

Even a few adventurous seals have made the climb up here to sleep on the soft moss.

As much as we like the seals, their arrival signals our imminent departure; the LMG pulled in today, the last tieing up that we the summer crew will have to do.

In just a week, it will sail north with us on board, returning us to the world of warm(er) winds, motorcycles, and having to pay for our own food.  As much as I enjoy being here, I'm looking forward to going home.  It's been a long season, and I'm ready to take on the real world again.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Last boat of the season

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of March, the LMG pulled in to make the last visit of the summer season.

In addition to the usual supply of freshies and sciencey stuff, it also brought us a slew of new toys.  Including, THANK GOD, our drain snake!

Just try and get clogged now, poop-pipes!

Due to a logistical screw-up, this unit accidentally got sent over to New Zealand before coming over here; apparently it got mixed into the cargo supply for McMurdo or South Pole and made it all the way to Auckland before someone caught the mistake.  So while it's here two months late, it's finally here!

We also got in an underwater hydraulic rock drill unit in, which is going to be used over the winter by the SCUBA divers as part of the ongoing boat ramp construction project.

Building the new boat ramp, as well as the accompanying floating dock, has been the most significant construction project on station of the last couple years.  It's part of a long-term plan to augment our fleet of Zodiacs with larger rigid-hull inflatable boats, which will greatly increase our range and capabilities of what kind of science we can do locally.  While the Zodiacs are great for what they are, due to their small size they're limited to near-shore usage in our local archipelago, generally no more than a couple miles from station.  The larger rigid-hull boats would allow us to safely operate further out into the open ocean, as well as farther up and down the coast from the station.

The logistics of getting those larger boats in and out of the water, however, would require some changes to how we move things around.  To facilitate this, we're in the process of building a new boat ramp in place of the old rock landing, as well as having installed a floating dock last season.

Half of the boat ramp was built last season, it's going to be twice as wide as what's seen here.

But before that happens, much of the rock in the area needs to be broken down and leveled out to prepare the area for installation of the supporting I-beams and concrete slabs.  In the real world, some heavy equipment or perhaps some blasting would make short work of it.  Down here, we have two young guys, one old guy, and some power tools.

The first step in the process was to drill some three-foot-deep holes using a pneumatic rock drill.  As I was the only guy down there without a beard and could therefor wear a respirator, this job fell to me.

After the holes were drilled, we got to break out our newest toy, a hydraulic rock splitter.  The idea was to put this down into the holes I'd drilled and then through the power of magic, fracture the rocks enough that we could remove them by hand.  We'd experimented with expanding grout earlier in the season, but due to the cold temperatures it never worked and was abandoned in favor of the rock splitter.

Due to the extreme forces at play here, a good coating of lube on the splitter helps everything along.  The middle tine is retracted into the unit and the outer tines are inserted into the holes.  The middle tine is then forced downwards via a hydraulic ram, forcing the outer tines out and fracturing the rock.


It's a REALLY bizarre and unsettling feeling to feel the rocks shifting and cracking underneath your feet.  After it's cracked and split enough, we can get in there with pry bars and occasionally jackhammers to get the chunks out.

Smaller bits could be hand-carried out, but the larger chunks we'd use cargo straps and the skytrack to lift up and out of the way.

This was not a quick project by any means; John was brought in specifically for this project and did absolutely nothing but break and move rocks for the better part of three months, with Steve and I contributing huge amounts of whatever time we could spare.  It's hard, physical work that leaves to sore and feeling broken at the end of every day, but after a while you . . . you don't quite get used to it, but you acclimate a bit.

After a few months of solid work, the rocks for the second part of the ramp have been cleared away, and the next crew will be installing the supports and concrete slabs this coming winter.  But the boat ramp is only part of the project to get larger boats onto station; we still need a vehicle to get them in and out of the water, and tow them around while on land.  And this brings us to our newest, and shiniest toy:

Our new Bobcat Toolcat, a work vehicle that's going to come in useful for all kinds of situations, not just moving the boats around.  While (sadly) it has the hitch and PTO instead of a bed, we did get the snowblower attachment, as well as a dump bucket and cargo forks.  This thing is going to make moving stuff around station VASTLY easier, as it's far smaller and more nimble than the skytracks and can actually drive inside the shipping containers to unload them.

Of course, because this comes off an assembly line it has some standard features that aren't quite needed down here.

We're still waiting on all the bits to come in for it; the engine block heater and tire chains didn't make it on the last ship, so they'll hopefully be on this coming one.  The chains are going to be very much needed; currently, these small hard tires have problems even making it up the hill to Terra-Lab at the top of station (Apparently you can also get larger 31" flotation wheels for it, which would be awesome and our mechanic has requested them, but I doubt we'll get them.  It should do well enough with just the chains).

This past ship was the cruise that most of the science personnel were leaving on; with the season winding down, our station population was reduced from 42 down to 28 people when they left a couple weeks ago.

The ship leaving gave us chance to engage in two long Antarctic traditions.  The first is the throwing of snowballs at the departing ship:

And second is the leaping of the crazy people into the water.

This isn't exactly my idea of fun.

Now that the ship is gone and most of the science has shut down, we're in the process of preparing for turnover.  Attending to many of the little tasks that have gotten put off over the busy season, cleaning and organizing the tools for the incoming winter crew.

As for me?  I'm still doing what I always do.  Figuring out how to fix things that I didn't previously know how to fix.