Saturday, April 12, 2014

Science Post: CTBT and AFTAC

Time for another science installment. This time I’ll be talking a little bit about CTBT and AFTAC. Both projects have the goal of detecting nuclear detonations around the world. The CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) project is funded by an international organization, and is part of a network of hundreds of stations comprised of seismic, hydrophonic, and infrasound detectors. They are used to look for detonations on the ground, in the water, and in the atmosphere, respectively. The project here is an infrasound system maintained by the University of Alaska - Fairbanks. It is located about 20 miles off station in an area know as Windless Bight because while it isn’t actually windless, it is much less windy than places closer to town.
The grantees for CTBT were in town in November and December and I was able to get out to Windless Bight twice in that time. The first time was as part of a fuel delivery for BOB (Big Orange Box), the orange building that houses the generator and computer systems for the infrasound array. The second time I came out was to learn about the generators and to learn how the onsite system works, just in case I have to go out there in the middle of the winter to troubleshoot. We’ll see if BOB behaves itself this winter.

Flag lines marking the route out to one of the sensors

A sensor vault in the distance

An ice fall in the distance.
AFTAC is the US Air Force’s version of CTBT and uses seismic monitors out in the Dry Valleys. I wrote earlier about my visit out to Mt. Newell and Bull Pass to help them work on their generators.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Science Post: CosRay

It's time for another post about some of the science I look after down here at McMurdo. CosRay is probably one of the coolest projects I work with. It doesn't actually require much in the way of support from me, but between the actual science that it does, the building that it is in, and the history behind it, it is very cool.
Anyways, CosRay is one of the longest running projects in Antarctica, having run continuously since 1960, with another very short run in 1958-59 during the International Geophysical Year. The CosRay Observatory is a cosmic ray detector. Cosmic rays are basically high energy subatomic particles that are produced by processes in the sun, or by further away things, like supernovas. So, these cosmic rays cruise towards Earth at nearly the speed of light, and when they hit the atmosphere, they are destroyed, producing a cascade of secondary subatomic particles. CosRay detects the neutron portion of these cascades.

A cosmic ray interacts with Earth's atmosphere on the wall of the CosRay building.
 By counting the number of neutrons that hit the detectors, the group is able to determine how many cosmic rays arrive at the Earth's atmosphere in a corresponding location.
McMurdo CosRay is part of a network of twelve observatories that make up an international monitoring network called Spaceship Earth. By studying solar activity, scientist are able to predict when major disturbances from the Sun might occur. The longevity of the study gives information about the solar cycle, which is 22 years long. The Sun switches polarity every 11 years, and at the middle of each 11 years reaches a solar maximum, which is when many sunspots and solar flares are observed. At these times, solar "storms" are most likely to cause problems here on Earth. For example, in 2003 a large magnetic storm affected 47 satellites, including one scientific satellite costing several hundred million dollars, and which was written off as a total loss.
A detector bank

One end of one of the detectors
The neutron counter at McMurdo consists of 18 tubes, arranged in three banks of six detectors each. Each detectors case is a 7-inch stainless steel case seven feet long and maintained at -2800V. The tubes contain boron triflouride (BF3) gas doped with boron-10, which is good at capturing low energy neutrons. Each tube is surrounded by a polyethylene sleeve surrounded by lead rings. The lead rings act as 'producers' because they will emit neutrons in response to a neutron hit. As the neutrons make their way into the detector, they will get close to a boron-10 nucleus and be absorbed. The boron nucleus then undergoes fission, producing electrons, which are accelerated by the voltage differential in the tube towards the counter.

Once upon a time CosRay required a lot more support than it does today, and there was a time when people more or less lived at the CosRay building. All that time spent there shows, since the interior has been elaborately decorated.
A rainbow ceiling

The New Cos-Ray

The reason the project exists


More rainbows
 Between the decoration and some of the old equipment, this building is one of the coolest on station.
An old "computer" counter. There is a corresponding "bit" bucket in the corner, holding all the paper punches this machine produced.

With all the advances in computers, CosRay doesn't need that much support anymore. I check on things once a week, and run out there whenever the router that controls data transmission goes out (which seems to happen at least once a week).

At this point, the plan for the project is to move it from McMurdo to the Korean base located at the same latitude, but about 300 miles down the coast. The initial move had been planned for this year, but the shutdown caused that to be delayed, so next year, two of the detector banks will move out, while the third remains here at McMurdo to collect data. Once the other two are set up at the Korean base, the third will leave here, and the CosRay building will be torn down. Kind of sad, but the program wants to start consolidating buildings, and tearing down older outlaying buildings is an easy start to that.

In other new, penguins are starting to arrive on station. The other night I went for a ski with Beth on the road to Pegasus and we ran into this fellow at Mile 2:

That is a molting Emperor penguin, so it will probably hang around the area for a couple of week. Hopefully the Adelies will start making their way toward McMurdo soon, because those guys are supposed to be funny to watch.

And New Years was great. The tradition at McMurdo is a chili cook-off and IceStock, a music fest of bands made on the Ice.

The line-up for the night

Watching one of the bands
 It is really amazing how talented the people down here are, and the music was amazing, as was the night. And the next day we had beautiful weather and a group of us hike out to Castle Rock for a picnic and nap. Great way to start 2014.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Since my last post...

So it has been a while since my last post, over a month in fact, and lots of things have happened since the end of January.
The cargo vessel came and went, though not without some drama. While it was here we had a big storm blow in, which kicked up a lot of waves and caused the ship to early. All there cargo made it off, though a lot of stuff that was supposed to get back to the States is stuck in McMurdo for another year, including some science samples.
Big waves crashing into Hut Point during vessel

The next day, Hut Point covered in frost and spray

After that the summer season was more or less over, so people began trickling out and heading for warmer climes. I definitely had a rough time with all the goodbyes, so by the time last flight came I was ready for winter to start.
Waiting for the last flight to take off on a blustery Sunday morning

Sharing the sparkling wine/cider toast with Admiral Byrd. Winter has officially begun!

Sometime in there we also had our first sunset. At this point we are well on our way to Antarctic night, with 13 hours between sunset and sunrise. We should be up to 24-hour darkness in a few weeks.

First sunset!

In the meantime, we’ve had some beautiful weather, with steam rising off the water as the air temperature drops. We’ve also had some pretty windy, overcast weather. No Con 1 weather yet, but I’m hoping for some of that later in the season.

A beautiful (if windy) day at Arrival Heights, with mist rising from the water below.

And a blustery day at Arrival Heights. The winds were at about 30kt here.

Also, with that big storm back in February, we had some pretty heavy erosion and undercutting of the shoreline. Right now we’re not suppose to go within 10 ft of the water and Hut Point has lost its point.
Hut Point is falling apart! It kind of looks like a fish.

Other than that, things have started to settle into a winter routine. The station is much quieter, which makes sense since we're down to 142 people, compared to 800+ for most of the season. The family table has returned to the galley, so while meals usually seem pretty empty, there is usually a "big" group eating there, with a scattering of others elsewhere in the galley and a lot of people eating in their rooms. I'm still getting used to the change in energy around station, but I've got a couple of things to keep me active. A group of us are doing strength training after work. I'm volunteering in the craft room, and today I'm getting orientated to the espresso machine, so that I can be a barista one evening a week. Then there is the usually soccer night, and SAR training once or twice a week. I'll be putting up some more about that in a future post.

Mini-post: Antarctic Birkie, 2014 edition

A short post about my second Antarctic Birkie.

For those of you who weren't following me on my last adventure in the Antarctic, here is the link to my first Antarctic Birkie experience.

The morning of my Birkie (the day after the Birkie at home, since I have to work Saturdays), the weather was actually pretty similar to what was going on in Cable, WI on race day. Single digit temps and a nice wind.

Getting ready to go in my office at Crary
Racing suits aren't really made to stand up to 20 knot winds, so I dressed a little warmer than I normally would have for a race.
This close to winter, the only trails open for skiing are Castle Rock and the road to LDB, both of which are a hike from station, which means that my Birkie this year was more of a duathlon. I ran about four miles out to the snow road with my skis and poles in hand, boots in a pack on my back.
The one photo I was able to get before my camera died. Taken on the road to Scott base, during my run out to snow.

Once I got to snow, I traded my running shoes for my ski gear. The snow was okay for skiing, not great,  but not nearly the slog that it sounds like the real thing was back home. Most of the road was pretty icy or windblown, but if I stayed to the sides I could usually find some decent snow. Most of the way out to LDB was very slow since I was fighting the wind, but I flew on the way back. I kind of wish I'd had a kite or a sail. That would have been a lot of fun.
I got back to the gravel road and switched back to my running stuff and headed back to McMurdo. I will say that running with skis and poles is not my favorite thing, but it was definitely worth it to get to ski on Birkie day.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Penguins and Boats and Crevasses, Oh My!

The Polar Star in McMurdo Sound
Exciting happenings this week. We had the US Coast Guard icebreaker, the Polar Star, make its way to McMurdo this week. They left this morning, and we’ll be getting the fuel tanker in this afternoon. And the cargo vessel is scheduled to arrive on  the 31st. We also had a private yacht visit station with tourists, and there should be one more cruise ship stopping by in the next couple of weeks. Things are about to get very busy around here.
The Polar Star broke up some of the ice in the bay near station, but by the time they got here, a lot of the ice further out was already clear. Some of the folks who’ve been down here many seasons have said that they’ve never seen so much open water. And it happened fast. It seems like things were still pretty closed in less than two weeks ago, but this week there is open water in pretty much every direction.
And with open water has come penguins. During the marathon there was a group of Emperor penguins hanging around aid station #2. And closer to station we’ve had a ton of Adelies playing in the water. We got what might be the last nice weather of the season early in the week, and a lot of people took advantage, taking the short hike down to Hut Point to watch the Adelies and get a little bit of sun.
Adelies hanging out at Hut Point
The Adelies were very funny to watch. Where the Emperors are stand-offish and a little grumpy seeming, the Adelies are gregarious and curios. If there were folks sitting close to shore, one Adelie would walk up to them and check things out, and suddenly there’d be four or five standing around the person, almost close enough to touch.
I didn’t get that close to them, but spectated for about an hour, watching the penguins make their clumsy way across the rocks and ice, and then jump into the water and porpoise out to some other piece of ice.

My own work has been variable the last couple of weeks. I had a grantee in town last week, and then another in town this week, so that has given me some extra things to do. I’ve also been working on swapping in new computers for CosRay, since the station is finally upgrading operating systems on the network computers. It has been interesting working with IT to get IP addresses assigned with all the right permissions and such. Facilities has been working on rerunning a lot of the power lines around station and they are to the lines running between station and Scott Base, which means that CosRay is also facing a short power outage in the next few weeks, so I also learned how to run a UPS backup battery test in order to make sure that the system would remain powered and continue transmitting data during the power outage. Everything went well there, so now I am just waiting on word for when the outage will happen, so I can keep an eye on things.
Earlier in the season I applied to be part of the winter Search and Rescue team. Initially, Loomy, the guy in charge of SAR, put me in as the first alternate, but one of his team members failed the PQ and I officially joined the team and started training with my new teammates. So far it has mostly been classroom/indoor training on pulley systems, knots, self-belaying, etc, but every other Thursday we head out into the field for some more practical experience. For our first outing we spent the morning at the crevasse simulator not too far from Happy Camper. We got introduced to the various anchoring systems, and then set up a main line, belay line and two edge kits.
Jamie doing edge duty
Then we started putting people over the edge and into the “crevasse”, which was a large pit that’s been dug out by Fleet Ops just for the US and Kiwi SAR teams to practice on.
Looking up at my edge crew from the bottom of the "crevasse".
 We had lunch out there and then packed up our gear, hopped back in the Hagglund and found a real crevasse to play in. This time Loomy treated it like an actual response, told us what he wanted and expected us to get things set up. We actually got things set up pretty quickly, although we had to redo the anchors on the belay line so that they would pull evenly, but Loomy was pretty pleased with us. Once everything was set up, we started dropping people into the crevasse.
Jonathan tying in to the main and belay lines

Chris, Gavin and Jamie hauling someone out of the crevasse on the main line

Rebecca holding the main line
Going down into the crevasse was very cool. The ceiling was covered in huge ice crystals. I grabbed a couple on my way back up to the surface for a closer look. The crevasse itself was a few hundred meters deep, and we were able to get lowered most of the way to the bottom before it got too narrow. All in all, it was a pretty awesome day, and we’ll be heading out for another adventure this Thursday, so I’m looking forward to that.

Looking up out of the crevasse

Ice crystals growing on the ceiling of the crevasse.

The same ice crystals up close. They were huge!

And another look

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

McMurdo Marathon Recap

Looking out from the starting line

So, this past weekend I participated in the McMurdo Marathon, one of many event put on my the McMurdo Rec department for the folks down here. It was a great experience and the volunteers  and organizers were awesome. Saturday (the day before the marathon) was had high winds (up to 30 knots out at Pegasus) and was on the chilly side, so a number of people ended up backing out. About 70 of us stuck it out, and Sunday ended up having some pretty beautiful weather.

To start, we dropped off gear for the half way point out at Pegasus Air Field and then loaded up three Deltas to get out to the start, at the 1 Mile marker of the white road out to Pegasus.
Getting ready to go in the Delta
Once we got to the start, we had about ten minutes to get ready and lined up. They gave the runners who were going for time the front line, and put the skiers on the outside, with everyone else lined up behind.
Kiwis and Americans toeing the line.
The course followed the snow road from mile 1 out the Pegasus at mile 14 and then turned around. The half marathoners turned around just after the second aid station out at mile 7.5. I started off a little fast, but after two days of not running at all I was feeling good and wanted to run with other people for as long as I could.
Skiers head out under cloudy skies.
I ended up running most of the first half with a group of guys. One of the guys, Martin, had planned on just doing the half, but got to the turn around, felt good and just kept going. We had two aid stations on the way out, which included the usual granola bars and Gatorade, along with PB&Js, burgers, candy bars, hand warmers, pee bottles (no restrooms out on the ice), and shots of whiskey and rum.
A few of the awesome volunteers, at Aid Station #2 (mile 7)
The road itself was in pretty good condition. You definitely had to watch your step and choose your path, but for the most part it was possible to find good footing. The last mile to and from Pegasus was in rough shape, though. It was either very soft, or glare ice, which made things interesting. As I said earlier, the weather on Sunday was pretty beautiful, to the point that I actually started to get hot the last couple of miles out to Pegasus. As my group was coming in to the turnaround, we started to see the skiers on the way back in, and later the leaders in the running race.
Will, a fellow Minnesotan down here with one of the science groups, won the skier division of the marathon

Duggan, one of the men's leaders
 My group ended up making it to the halfway mark at just under 1:50.
fueling up at the halfway mark
I ended up dropping off my gloves and buff, which I'd been carrying along since about the second mile. Of course, once I turned around I realize how much of a tail wind we'd had and got a little chilled. I still had my headband, so once I put that back on I was pretty comfortable. Unfortunately, that was also about the time that I dropped the guys I'd been running with for the first half.
Turning around and lookin' fast
So, by myself and against the wind. Needless to say, parts of the second half were a struggle, especially after about mile 18. Sometime in here running on the snow also started to bug my toes (as I write this, it looks like I'll be losing one or two toe nails). I started talking to myself, and making goals about when I needed to reach the next mile marker, usually giving myself about 9 minutes. For most of the way back I made my little goals. At about mile 21 I started to flag and missed goals twice, but then I hit the final aid station with 3 miles left, chatted with Annie, one of the volunteers, for a few seconds, and was able to pick it up again.At about mile two, after passing the Wissard travers equipment, I could see the finish line very clearly getting closer, along with another racer not too far ahead, so I tried to pick it up a little bit more. I don't think I did a whole lot, but I gained on the guy ahead of me and was able to put in a good finishing kick the last 100 meters. And I finished in 3:55:56, a personal best, in Antarctica.
After getting a little bit to ear, I switched to my ski gear and went back out to cheer other finishers in. At about the 3 mile mark, I ran into my friend Beth and skied with her back to the finish.
Beth, somewhere on the way back in.
Once in, we waited for the last of the finishers and for our ride back in to town.
John (left) and Danny Gregory
Awesome story time: So, Danny Gregory was having trouble and thinking about quitting at the second to last aid station at mile 19, and John talked with him and then started running with him to keep Danny going. He ended up running the last 7 miles with Danny, in snow boots and Carhartts, and a little drunk (he'd been taking shots with all the runners who took shots). What an awesome guy.

And now some more pictures:
On my way back in

Laura running her first half marathon

Chris (in black) and Jonas running the half marathon

Paige and Megan, two of our awesome volunteers, out at mile 11/16

Getting close to the turn around

My Kiwi friend, Isaac, skiing the marathon. He learned to ski here on the ice!

Looking towards Pegasus from the turn around

Volunteer Gaelyn posing at the turn around.

And now we have to run all the way back...

We also had some natives join the race