Archive for the ‘Logistics’ Category

The Ballad of AGU

November 27, 2012

The American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (usually just referred to as AGU) is when something like 15,000 scientists descend on San Francisco’s Financial District for a week. There are talks and posters, of course (so many talks and posters!) but as with any convention the main point is to connect with new colleagues and re-connect with old friends. This is a poem I wrote for the Cryosphere gathering at AGU a couple of years ago. The meter and rhyme scheme are modeled after “The Egyptian Diamond” by Randall Garrett.

I will be at AGU again next week! Monday is Science Open Mic Night at Jillian’s Billiards Club, so I have to decide what to perform, which is going to be tricky.

The Ballad of AGU

Sunday, just a bit past five
And you’re feeling half alive
With your poster on your shoulder as you stumble to your flight
You’ve been staying up too late
Your data won’t cooperate
And you found a whole new error around ten PM last night.

But now you’re at AGU
There’s a million things to do
There are friends from far-off places who you haven’t seen all year
In the morning, though, I’m betting
You will find yourself regretting
That moment you decided “Sure, I’ll have another beer!”

Bright and early, you will fight
The grand excesses of last night
You will struggle bravely out of bed and stagger to Moscone
There’s a talk you must attend
By an early-rising friend
And a cutting-edge announcement you suspect might be baloney

Now you’ve coffee cup in hand,
with which to aid your mental band-
width, for a firehose of data’s aimed directly at your brain
There’s a clever new device
To gauge the temperature of ice
And a host of novel ways to watch a glacier from a plane

There’s a brand-new data set
Barely even processed yet
That details the Greenland ice sheet’s elevation, shape and speed
There’s a fellow at a booth
Who, if his pitch has any truth
Sells an instrumental system that does everything you need

There’s an algorithmic way
To take the data from a day
And extrapolate behavior of the system for a week
There’s a dozen gloomy talks
On how the planet’s on the rocks
And the global warming outlook’s gotten just a bit more bleak

Then, before you’re really read
When your spiel is still unsteady
You’re onstage—your poster’s posted and your work you must explain
Visitors interrogate you
Some to praise, some to deflate you
And your voice is going hoarse from giving out the same refrain

But look! some kind soul brought beer
And the end is getting near
And suddenly it’s over, just as quick as it begun
Battling through the teeming streets
You reach a trove of drinks and treats
And the denizens of Cryosphere are here to have some fun!

Ice roads and igloos

July 11, 2011

Ice melt to close off Arctic’s interior riches: study

One of the things I find interesting about ice is its use in engineering. Ice and snow are actually fantastic building materials for certain purposes–mostly due to their cheapness and ubiquity, but sometimes also because they have useful physical properties. You may have heard of Pykrete, the mixture of ice and wood pulp that was proposed as a potential material for aircraft carriers. The wood pulp increased the strength of the brittle ice; it also reduced its thermal conductivity, slowing down melt. But apparently the fact that ice flows under its own weight, combined with the fact that such a carrier could only be used in cold weather or with massive refrigerating apparatus, doomed the project.

In cold climates, however, ice is a natural material for all kinds of things. For instance, the ice roads made famous by the show Ice Road Truckers and whose impending loss is bemoaned in the article at the top of this post. Or the ice pier at McMurdo, mentioned in this post and shown below being trimmed to size by several explosive charges:


Ice structures needn’t be solely functional. For one thing, it’s a popular sculptural medium. You’ve also probably heard of ice hotels like this one in Sweden or this one in Québec. Despite its beauty, though, ice isn’t the most functional material for living quarters; it conducts heat too well. For dwellings, you want something with good insulative properties: snow!

The most famous snow dwellings are those made by the Inuit people of the high Arctic: igloos. (“Iglu” can actually refer to any type of dwelling, but for my current purposes I’m most interested in the temporary, dome-shaped, snow-and-ice structures.) This webpage discusses igloo technique, including the use of lamps to melt the interior so that it will refreeze as structurally stronger ice. (It is worth noting that traditional cut-block igloos work best with a certain type of wind-packed dry snow that is, I think, much easier to find in the Arctic and Antarctic than in temperate regions.)

But snow shelters are useful for anyone camping in snowy conditions. This chapter of the US Antarctic Program Field Manual (PDF link) describes the basics of several different types of snow shelter. The quinzhee, for instance, used to be a major feature of McMurdo Happy Camper school. The US Antarctic Program approach is to build up the quinzhee by shoveling snow on top of a pile of equipment which is then removed to create a cavity; more traditional quinzhees may involve creating a pile of snow and later hollowing it out.

When I did Happy Camper they emphasized the snow trench as a shelter that could more easily be built by one person, if necessary:

Snug and warm(ish.)

The one disadvantage of a snow dwelling this small is that one is forever knocking snow off the walls and down the back of one’s neck. Igloos and quinzhees are far preferable if you have the time and manpower, not to mention being more visually impressive.

A Field Scientist’s Work is Never Done

April 7, 2011

Original audio post.

Today’s science fell a bit flat, at least on my end. Ruschle and I went out to re-take some albedo measurements, but were frustrated by rapidly-changing cloud conditions that confused the instrument.

Ruschle covers the Sun so I can photograph the clouds around it, in an effort to compensate for their effects; eventually we just gave up.

Mel and Martin had better luck making snow measurements and taking samples. Right now, Martin is sitting behind me with his makeshift lab, pouring diethyl phthalate into snow samples to preserve them. We’ve been having a little trouble getting the stuff cold enough to set, but that’s another post, I think.

Anyway, I figured I’d talk a little more about the rhythms of life in camp. Life in any camp seems to be defined by its chores, so I’ll start with those. Thinking about chores, actually, I was surprised at how few I could come up with. Perhaps that’s because a lot of chores at normal camps involve cleaning things, and we happen to be living in a place with essentially zero dirt.

Responsibilities begin in the morning, when whoever slept with the satellite phone (it has to be kept warm, so it’ll work when it’s needed) calls McMurdo to let them know we’re still OK. Every field camp does this check-in. It’s a sort of failsafe, in case something disastrous happens and we aren’t able to contact anyone to call for help.

Whoever’s cooking breakfast–or sometimes whoever’s in the kitchen tent first–collects a bucket of snow from outside to melt for water. Melting snow is probably the most constant and time-consuming chore. All the water for cooking, drinking, dishwashing, and other miscellaneous uses must be melted in the big pot on the propane stove. Notably, bathing is not really on the list of uses. Living in unheated tents means that getting wet is more or less courting hypothermia, so we mostly do without. I’m sure there are ways to manage it [bathing], but for three weeks, in a place without dirt, we think we can get away with it.

The water-melting pot, which was in near-constant use when we were in the tent.

We hold an informal meeting after breakfast to decide, mostly based on the weather, what to do with the day. If we’re going out, we need to take the covers off the snow machines and inspect them before heading out to the field to do science. Coming back, we re-fuel and re-cover the snow machines. Without the covers, the engine compartments fill with drifted snow.

Snowmachines, neatly put away.

The cook for the day (tomorrow, that’s me) starts dinner while everyone else puts away the scientific instruments. (I’m thinking I might make some kind of Malaysian-style curry.) More snow is melted–again, usually by the Cook for the Day. Someone might sweep the kitchen, if it’s filled up with drifted snow again. Snow is kind of our equivalent of dirt, but it’s much less bothersome, since it generally evaporates if you leave it long enough. Still, when it accumulates in the kitchen, it becomes somewhat irritating.

Supplementary audio post.

Hey, sorry–I think my last post got cut off when the satellite phone went out. Somewhere around where I was talking about how it’s irritating when the kitchen fills up with drifted snow. I’m actually rather surprised that the satphone hasn’t cut out mid-post before now. Unfortunately the WordPress voice-post function is a bit primitive; the only option is to call, leave a post, and hang up. You can’t really edit it afterwards. So, I won’t try to re-record the whole post this time, since I was mostly finished anyway. After dinner, pretty much all that’s left to be done is to wash the dishes and decide who’s going to sleep with the satphone. So, uh, it’s about time for bed here, so I will bid you all goodnight and talk to you soon. ‘Bye.

Great Scott!

March 30, 2011

Original audio post.

I mentioned Scott tents yesterday, and, since this morning dawned with 25-knot winds, I spent a lot of time contemplating the interior of mine today, cozied up in my sleeping bag. So, I thought I’d say a bit more about them.

Our three Scott tents.

Scott tents look rather like a child’s drawing of a tent at first glance. It’s nothing like the complex geometric curves of the tents you see marketed to backpackers nowadays; it’s a simple pyramid, four triangular sides sloping steeply to a pointy top. And most of them–most of the tents, that is–are bright canary yellow. I don’t know if the original version of the tent actually used by Scott was this color. It would seem terribly incongruous with the tragedy of their polar journey, Scott and his men dying slowly in a cheerfully sunshine-yellow tent.

Anyway. The setup process for a Scott tent is likewise simple, at least in theory. The edges of the pyramid are supported by four legs, which are joined together at the top. To put up the tent, simply stand it up and pull the legs away from each other until the walls are taut, then stake down the edges and guylines. This process becomes somewhat more complicated in windy conditions, as the rest of my team found out.

Once you’ve managed to stop the tent from blowing over, you can weight the edges with snow and put in the floor.

Now comes the tricky business of actually getting into the tent. The Scott tents are double-walled, which helps with insulation and prevents the kind of condensation-based indoor rainstorms we’ve been having in our kitchen tent. The entrance consists of two fabric tubes, one attached to the outside wall and one to the inside. The ends of the tubes can be cinched closed with drawstrings to keep the wind [and, just as importantly, drifting snow] out.

So, to get in, you first find the toggle for the outer drawstring, pull it out over the snow-encrusted string, wrestle the end of the tube open, crawl in, get the edge of the tube caught on your hat, trip over your boots, find the drawstring for the inner fabric tube, repeat the whole process, and finally fall into the tent with the outer tube caught on your boot and the inner one still lovingly wrapped around your shoulders.

Mel and Martin insist that this process is simplicity itself, and I am making a fuss about nothing. I think perhaps they have some weird arcane bond with their tents that I just don’t understand.

Mel, master of the Scott tent tube entry. Photo by Ruschle.

Don’t get me wrong–I do like the Scott tent. My tent is a snug home, and it contains my wonderful two-foot-thick down sleeping bag. Indeed, I think I’ll head there now. So, ’til tomorrow, ciao!

Ruschle happy in her down sleeping bag. These bags are so thick and fluffy that it is difficult to tell whether someone is actually sleeping in one until you peer into the face port. Picture by Mel.

You can string a clothesline inside the tent for drying your wet clothes--useful and decorative! Photo by Mel.

Vessel 2: The Evolution

February 12, 2011

The fuel tanker was pretty much done with its duties here as of a few days ago, but it ran into some minor issues when it tried to actually leave. Last year’s ice pier had broken free of its moorings and drifted out in front of the ship. They had to send some people out to attach cables and retrieve it:

People in survival suits ('Mustang suits' designed to allow a human to survive even in frigid Antarctic waters) attaching cables to the old pier.

The icebreaker Oden escorted the tanker out the next day.

The Oden escorts the tanker out.

Shortly afterward, the resupply vessel–which had been waiting a few miles out, past the edge of the sea ice–came in.

The BBC EMS. Apparently it is quite hard, these days, to find container ships small enough to fit McMurdo's harbor.

The people on station who deal with Stuff have been working around the clock for the last week to get everything off the vessel and reload it with the things that go back to the States. First the folks in supply jobs offloaded what was on the boat–food, parts for vehicles, new equipment, things to sell in the store, more food, and so on. Large areas of the station were roped off as staging areas for all this stuff while people got it where it needed to go.

A central staging area, right outside the Galley.

A thousand people eat a lot of food in one year.

A chart of the off-limits areas, modified slightly by dorm residents.

Then other groups of people swung into gear to get things back onto the vessel–science samples going back to the States (including some of ours!) and all the waste generated by the station in the past year, which will be recycled or incinerated as appropriate. Supposedly they’re done, or close to done, and the vessel will leave this evening, and everything can go back to normal (or as normal as it gets around here.) We’ll see.

My friend Jessie has a great post about the vessel with photos from alternate perspectives and some time-lapse videos of the whole process. Check it out!

Waiting For My Ship to Come In

February 3, 2011

The vessel is coming.

Every year, McMurdo—enormous Antarctic city that it is—uses far more supplies than it would be economical to bring down by plane. So once a year, at the end of the season when the sea ice is a bit more navigable, ships come in bearing fuel and other necessities. Food, materials, parts, T-shirts for the store, you name it. An icebreaker (the Oden, this year) makes a path for the resupply ships through the remaining sea ice near shore.

This is an enormous undertaking. The fuel tanker arrived a few days ago, shortly after we got back from the field, and the fuelies (e.g. the people tasked with moving fuel around and getting it where it’s needed) have been working long hours all week to get it offloaded.

The enormous fuel tanker looks into the midnight sun. Scott's hut is visible behind it, a little ways to the right of the No Smoking sign.

Tomorrow, or so I am given to understand, The Vessel is due to come in. I don’t know much about The Vessel (as it is universally known) except that it will be taking many of our ice cores back to the States, but I do know what effects it’s having on the town. Dozens (hundreds?) of temporary helpers from the U.S. Navy have arrived to help offload it. The town’s supply staff will be working practically nonstop. Some of the inessential functions of the station are essentially shut down for the week to ensure that everyone concentrates on the enormous task at hand. Big areas of the station are restricted or entirely off limits.

In the meantime, we’re still busy processing all our samples to get them onto the vessel (we cut up the ice cores in record time, actually) and making pictures of bubbles–which I ought to post about soon.


Oh, by the way, the resupply ships dock at a pier that is made largely of ice—it’s just seawater pumped into the shape of a pier during the colder parts of the season, with a little bit of a framework (I think) to help it keep its shape. It’s several meters thick. Here they are blasting the edge off of it to get it ready for the tanker, which is visible in the background.


Repost: First Days in the Field

January 31, 2011

Original post, Jan 11 2011. (Many thanks to Jonathan Beall for the transcription!)

“Hi, I’m calling WordPress on our satellite phone. So, if I cut out suddenly, or sound a little weird, that’s why.

Sorry to let you go so long without a post. Packing was a little bit of a scramble, and I found out at the last minute that the shuttle to our plane was rather earlier than I thought it would be. I never quite expected to make it out here on schedule, not after seeing friends get caught in the endless holding pattern of weather delay after weather delay. But yes, we arrived yesterday, right on time.

The Twin Otter that took us out to the Allan Hills.

Icefields near our camp.

The camp was already set up when we arrived. Mel, Ruschle, Steve, and Peter spent four days in forty-knot winds putting it together on their first trip out. The wind is a constant here. On the last trip the rest of the team only got one or two days of calm weather. Fifteen or twenty knots is more typical. The winds steal heat quickly, bare hands go numb within a minute, or at least mine do. None of the tents are heated, although the kitchen tent does have a heater that can be used in a pinch, so we do most of our living just below freezing. Fortunately, the constant wind makes indoors seem practically tropical. We keep warm with hot tea and lots of high calorie food.

My first glimpse of the camp.

Today it was a bit too windy to go out and do science, so we set up our equipment and went for a short hike to look at the blue ice near camp. This place is amazing and alien and desolate and beautiful, and I’m really looking forward to spending the next three weeks here.”

More photos of the flight and of camp.

Camping Happily

January 6, 2011

Since my mother wrote some awesome limericks for my previous posts, I thought I should add a couple of my own.

From Happy Camper

Patient Field Safety personnel strive
To keep each Happy Camper alive
With rigorous training
And lots of explaining
Hoping when crisis strikes, we’ll survive

From Happy Camper

For my happily camping cohort
No mere tent of the usual sort
With so much snow around
Each of us can be found
In a fabulous personal fort

From Happy Camper

A note: I realize this post-a-day experiment has been going on for a very short time, but I’m already realizing some significant problems with it. Firstly, it makes it difficult to get a good, solid science post done–there’s too much background to do in a day. And secondly, it’s distracting me from doing actual science, not to mention enjoying Antarctica while I’m here. So, while post-a-day would be a laudable goal, I am going to scale back a bit and aim for maybe twice or thrice weekly.

Take to the Hills!

January 3, 2011

It occurred to me today that our study site is more remote than any other place I’ve been, by a decent margin. If the zombie apocalypse were to reach Antarctica the day after they dropped us off there, we’d have a lengthy distance to traverse, through harsh conditions, before we got back to the station–which is, itself, quite far away from the nearest truly habitable land. It’s possible to survive for a while in Antarctica by living off of fresh meat and burning blubber for heat (I think this is how Shackleton’s men survived when they were stranded on Elephant Island) but it’s not an especially pleasant experience, nor would it probably be sustainable in the long term.

In any case, being curious about just how far from station we would be, I made a map. Google Maps seems to have added considerably better imagery for this area since I tried it out on my first trip down. (I’m working on adding some of the interesting places around station to the map, as well as the further-out field sites.)

Map of McMurdo and surrounding areas

You can see that the Allan Hills area–up in the top left-hand corner of this map–is only about 140 miles/220 kilometers away from McMurdo “as the skua flies.” It’d be a bit longer if you had to find a route across the ice, supposing the sea ice was even intact enough to allow you to get to Ross Island.

In reality we won’t be too far away, just an hour’s ride in a Twin Otter, but it’ll be quite an experience regardless.

Ice team splits up

December 31, 2010

As I mentioned in my last post, when Martin and I arrived on the Ice the rest of our team–Mel, Peter, Ruschle, and my advisor Steve–were still out in the field. They all finally made it back on Wednesday, and so we’ve been busily exchanging information before Steve and Peter headed back out into the Real World, leaving Martin and I to take their places.

I’m working on bios for everybody–I don’t like to post them without running them past the people they’re about–but I wanted to put up a few photos of the team:

Back row: me, Peter, Steve. Front row: Martin, Mel, Ruschle.

Testing out some equipment.

Steve and Peter actually headed out this morning, after a day’s delay due to runway issues.

One of the tricky things about Antarctica, you see, is its general lack of dry, non-ice-covered land; not only is there not much of it, what land does exist is of considerable scientific interest and therefore not usable for logistics. So the runways are built on the ice shelf (Pegasus, the ‘permanent’ runway) or the sea ice near station, which is a good 1.5 meters (around five feet) thick in the winter and spring and thus more than capable of supporting the weight of a C-17. It’s too far into summer now for the sea ice runway to be considered usable, so all the flights land at Pegasus, some ways from station.

Generally these runways work fine. But snow and ice are notably less durable than asphalt, in many ways, and so when a C-17 had trouble taking off during warm conditions earlier this week, it ended up gouging a lengthy hole in the packed-snow runway at Pegasus. As a result, they delayed flights by a day to see if they could fix it, and then ended up sending passengers home on C-130 ski-equipped aircraft when they couldn’t get it up to suitable standards in time for a C-17 flight. My friend Jessie, on the medical staff here, wrote a great post about the runway issues.