Infidel on the 7th Continent – by Hypatia

Also known as “What I did on my winter vacation”: an exciting account of how a working scientist spent her season in Antarctica!

Sometimes I still don’t quite believe it myself – I spent the past eight months wintering over in Antarctica! Eight months of extreme cold, howling winds, limited supplies, terrible food and undrinkably-bad coffee, long work weeks with no vacation, no way to leave, no sun, no trees/flower/animals, no pizza delivery, no bookstores, no fresh fruits and precious few fresh vegetables, no theaters; and yet those eight months were by far the best eight months of my life. I absolutely loved the work I did, I thoroughly enjoyed myself during my free time and I became good friends with many of the 119 quirky, smart, crazy people down there with me.

Work:

I arrived at McMurdo Station, Antarctica this February as a research associate, hired through Raytheon Polar Services and paid through the National Science Foundation, who oversee the three US Antarctic stations (McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (aka Pole), and Palmer (the tropical resort of Antarctica)).

My work involved collecting ozone data as part of an International Polar Year project coordinated by the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Germany and the University of Wyoming. The goal of the project was to track ozone in specific air parcels within the stratosphere throughout the winter and spring. I collected ozone data by launching ozonesondes – basically weather balloons with an ozone detector attached. I was responsible for all the balloon and sonde prep work, data collection and coordinating the launch team.

The balloons typically carried the ozonesondes to approximately 30 km (100,000 ft.) and are made of 0.3 mil thick polyethylene plastic (like dry cleaner bags) with a maximum volume of 19,000 cubic feet (~ 26 ft high by 37 ft in diameter). The payload consisted of the ozonesonde which uses electrochemistry to detect ozone, a radiosonde for measuring temperature, pressure and relative humidity and a gps unit. The radiosonde transmited the data back to the receiving stations for the duration of the balloon’s flight (usually about 3.5 hours). The payload package weighed about five pounds. That’s me on the far right of the picture, holding the payload just before launch (photo is by Chad Carpenter).

Weather balloon

Weather balloon

The ozone hole was actually a little less severe than expected this spring. This was likely due to the stratosphere being warmer than usual. When the stratosphere gets sufficiently cold ice crystals will form, producing polar stratospheric clouds. A chemical reaction takes place on these ice crystals, breaking down CFCs and releasing Cl molecules; it is the free Cl molecules in the stratosphere that destroy ozone. There were far fewer ice crystals formed this winter (an independent experiment at McMurdo studied the formation of polar stratospheric clouds) hence less ozone loss.

Play:

As much as I enjoyed the work I did at McMurdo, I still greatly appreciate time off and the crazy stuff that passes for entertainment in McMurdo in winter. Surprisingly, McMurdo has a decent amount of entertainment on site: a bar (smoking allowed – ick), a library, a gym, a bouldering cave, a craft room, a band room, a few hiking trails, a radio station, gear issue where you can borrow instruments and games, and a small store that rents movies. I took advantage of most of the on-site entertainment but it was the spontaneous, creative, free-form fun that kept me sane: big parties every other weekend, room bars, the “frostbite 4k” race, the polar plunge, radio darts, a wedding, martini matinees, pranks and practical jokes, the clothing-optional hot tub, live music, boondoggles.

Parties: I never really understood why, but all parties at McMurdo are costume parties by default. Some had themes (e.g. – the “P” party – dress up as something that starts with a p, the “sock” party, the “freakout”) but all of them had people in whacky attire.

Tony on a theremin

Tony on a theremin


Above is Tony playing a theremin at the Freakout party; Tony was one of my balloon team guys and head of the station’s small engine repair shop for the past four winters. To get some understanding of what people at McMurdo are like, consider that two years ago Tony spent weeks back in the states trying to find a wedding dress big enough to fit him so that he could bring it down for his next winter-over at McMurdo.

Here is a shot from the Sock party. Sandwich (the gal in the foreground) actually dresses pretty crazy all the time.

The Sandwich sock

The Sandwich sock


Below is a shot from the Luau. The guy in the middle with the blue veil is a NASA guy, kissing him is one of my best pals Rex, retired from the Navy where he spent many months on a nuc sub.

Luau night!

Luau night!


The Midwinter Run (aka the “Frostbite 4K”): This is a race done every winter at McMurdo. Its nickname is from last year when a new station manager who “didn’t believe in wind chill” allowed the race to proceed in a Condition 2 (wind chill < -70). Many of the runners ended up with frostnip or frostbite. This year there were no problems. The picture is of me crossing the finish line. As with parties, the race is usually done in costume; I found my costume (it’s a laboratory beaker) hanging in a closet in the research outbuilding where I would get telemetry during balloon flights. Antarctic slang for a scientist is “beaker.” This is down town McMurdo at midday on a winter Sunday – quiet and dark.

Midwinter Run

Midwinter Run


Polar Plunge: The Plunge is an old McMurdo tradition where the folks at Scott Base (the New Zealand station a couple of miles from McMurdo; the NSF won’t let McMurdo host a plunge themselves) cut a hole in the ice over McMurdo Sound and invite everyone over for a swim. The plunge is done wearing only shoes (so your feet don’t freeze to the ice when you get out) and a harness (so that the search-and-rescue team standing by can pull you out if you have a problem). This winter the water temperature was 28 degrees and the air temperature was about -25. The water didn’t actually seem cold when I jumped in – it just felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach, I couldn’t breathe and I was grabbing for the ladder before I had any conscious thought. Getting out was a challenge, with muscles already stiffening and hands numb, and then, when the -25 air hit wet bare skin, I did finally feel cold. With ice flaking from my arms and legs and a huge grin on my face I made the quick dash up to the warming hut and eventually thawed out. The vodka helped. I get chills and a grin just looking at that picture.

Polar plunge

Polar plunge

Radio Darts: Another old McMurdo/Scott Base tradition. Every Friday night Scott Base hosts an evening of dart games between McMurdo, Scott and Pole. The folks at Pole radio in their scores each round, and suspiciously do very well with no one to keep them honest. Some folks take the dart games seriously but most of us just go to drink Guinness and flirt with the Kiwis.

The Wedding: There was a wedding this year! Clive and Ruthie were two winterovers from New Zealand, although Ruthie worked at McMurdo. The ceremony was held in an ice cave near Scott Base, with the wedding march played on a freezing tenor saxophone. The bridesmaids wore traditional dark blue Kiwi thermals under artfully arranged and detailed dresses made from trash bags. Note the Guinness harp logo on the official’s hat (there was a Tui bird on the other side; Tui is a kiwi beer).

Winter wedding

Winter wedding

Your hosts at Antarctica

Your hosts at Antarctica

Party Hosting: The four of us winterovers who worked in the lab hosted a station-wide “Mad Science” party, with black lights, big Einstein posters, hundreds of dollars in free booze, liquor luges, a fog machine, strobe light and glacial ice martinis. It was a big hit although we got in trouble with station management about the liquor luges.

Bill-a-seltzer: For the Fourth of July carnival many of us ran game booths and gave away prizes. The centerpiece booth was the dunk tank. In the usual spirit of winterover craziness one of the guys on station decided to make use of the hundreds of expired Alka-Seltzer tablets the store was throwing away by gluing them to a shirt and having the last dunk tank victim be the NSF rep on station, Bill, wearing the shirt – Bill-a-seltzer!

Bill-a-seltzer!

Bill-a-seltzer!


And a final picture courtesy of my friend Antz.

Southern lights

Southern lights

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