Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Friday, January 03, 2003

from the Black & White country

04 Jan 03 - by Paolo G. Calisse

Today I said bye to grass, tv, radio, children, shops, mall, traffic, ties, restaurants and a lot of other things, including most of the colours of the world. For about 10 months I'll get rid of them. In McMurdo I found some residual, for example some cars. What I will miss a lot, I think, is the green. There is no chance at all to find also the most derelict grass or plant of any kind even at McMurdo. At South Pole this is completely true with the remarkable exception of the greenhouse, where some little vegetable that will soon be converted in a little salad can be found.

The flight has been smooth, except for a 3 hours departure delay. We flown in a C-141, a 4-jet propelled high wing with the nickname "Airlifter". Its body is a bit longer, but not larger than the Herc, so I spent 5 hours of my life with the knees of a beared person jammed into my own. But the aircraft is faster, and takes 3 hours less than the C-130 to reach Antarctica. It sounds also different. Yes. At the loud and baritonal sound of the Herc it substitutes an high pitched noise before starting, looking more modern but by far more annoying.

The landing at Pegasus field put us a long way out of the McMurdo station. Was snowing a lot. I have been asked to get into one of those strange medium of transportation used in Antarctica. This one was is like a big red truck with oversized and apparently overpressurized tyres, and a parallelepipoidal box not enough large for the truck where people should fit in. Was so warm inside that I spent all the trip 1 1/2 hours trip time keeping the back door open, that was a potentially dangerous exercise as at any bump (and there were a lot) I risked to slam the door in front of my nose or be thrown out of the truck on the ice.

But people complained, the driver was unreachable and I was sitting at the end of the bus.

After arrival at McMurdo, and an hour long briefing (that I missed almost completely because the above truck was the slowest of the 3 used to move the 84 people to the station), I got to my accomodation. This time it was the weird "Hotel California", the elected accomodation for the people in transit in the station. Room 207, bulk beds only for about 30 people in the same room.

No worries. I do not pretend very much.

A day at the beach

Saturday 4 January, 2004

Today the weather was perfect - blue skies, warm and sunny, and just enough of an icy breeze to remind us that we really are in Antarctica. We wandered up to the meteorology office to get the facts: today in the early afternoon it's +2 C, with a wind speed of 15 - 20 knots. Yesterday the wind was typically between 40 and 50 knots (80 to 100 km/hr), which is definitely unpleasant. (This, however, is nothing compared to the wind that swept through Dumont d'Urville in 1972. The
meteorologist proudly showed us a copy of the recording - 320 km/hr!)

We all slept very well last night. It was great to be back on the l'Astrolabe being gently rocked to sleep. After breakfast we once again made our way down to the barge, although the trip through the bowels of the ship was easier today as they'd unloaded enough stuff out of the hold that we didn't need to clamber down the side of the ship. The only complication was that a large piece of the ice shelf had broken off during the night, blocking the channel between us and the wharf. This
floating obstacle had first to be pushed out of the way by the barge, a task that at the time seemed surprisingly difficult. However, in retrospect it's easy to calculate that it must have weighed several hundred tonnes. The process was made more entertaining by the presence of 50 or so penguins that had taken up temporary residence on the piece of ice. Not all of them were convinced that they wanted to stay there once it started moving. Wracked by indecision they wandered up and down for a bit before all but four of them leapt into the water. The others just stood there and enjoyed the ride.

Before lunch we got clued up on penguins. We're fascinated by their complex social behaviour. Barbara, the only biologist who came down from Hobart with us, was able to confirm that their social behaviour was not at all like that of fish larvae, but this did not greatly advance our knowledge. Further enlightenment came chatting to Armelle, a penguin researcher at the station. Armelle told us that the male builds the nest out of stones (which stop the eggs from rolling away and also provide some protection from the wind), and attracts a mate. After the chicks are born the parents take it in turn sitting on the nest and guarding the little ones. The other parent heads out to sea and spends the next 3 or 4 days catching a stomach-full of food. Returning to the nest it regurgitates food for its mate and its young, then takes over the baby-sitting while the other parent goes of to work.

There are some 11,000 Adelie penguins on DdU, and about 30,000 in the immediate vicinity. We also asked Armelle about the juvenile Emperor penguins we had seen yesterday. She told us that the parents leave them with a stomach full of food, and from now on they're on their own. They can't swim yet because they still have their baby feathers. However, once they've moulted they'll teach themselves to swim along with all the other things that penguins need to know. At the height of the season there are some 1700 Emperors on DdU. Because they are not territorial their social behaviour is not nearly as complicated as that of the Adelies, perhaps being closer to that of fish larvae.

Lunch today was not one of the cook's best efforts, but definitely enjoyable.

After lunch we went off in search of the young Emperor penguins we had seen yesterday. Unfortunately they'd gone - presumably the piece of ice they were sitting on had drifted away somewhere. Undeterred, we climbed across a small hill to discover a group of three geologists deeply engrossed in a rock. This was clearly going to be a unique opportunity for us to observe three members of this rare species in their natural habitat, and we leapt at the chance. We approached carefully, mindful of the Antarctic convention on wildlife which states that we must not cause distress and must immediately back off if threatened. Fortunately, the particular geologists we had stumbled across were Rene-Pierre, Arnaud and Yann, who had come down with us from Hobart on l'Astrolabe and, like everyone else in Antarctica, were extremely friendly.

It turns out that the rocks we were sitting on were roughly 1.7 billion years old, almost half as old as the earth itself (4.6 billion years). This part of Antarctica was once joined to the Eyre Peninsular of South Australia, and the rocks there are very similar. These particular geologists were studying the orientation of the strata within the rocks. This tells them how the rocks have moved over geological time, and leads to a better understanding of the processes that move rocks around.
Within the basic rock (gneiss) were bands of other rock containing large crystals of quartz, feldspar, cordierite and sillimanite. These apparently are important because they give unambiguous details about the precise conditions under which the rocks formed in the first place.

We've now all had our passports stamped with an official Terre Adelie entry stamp. It's very official looking and is sure to raise a few eyebrows on future international trips.

It turns out that it is possible to just sit and watch penguins for hours. Late this afternoon I met up with some biologists who were studying this year's chicks. They had marked some of the nests with numbers, and every three of four days they weigh the chicks (usually one or two per nest) and measure various parts of the babies with a pair of callipers. This was great fun to watch. To remove the chick from the nest involves wearing a stout leather glove of the left hand. The adult
penguin guarding the nest is distracted with the gloved hand and a loose cloth bag is slipped over its head. While the penguin is trying to figure out why it's suddenly gone dark in the middle of summer, the chick is deftly removed with the other hand and the bag removed. The parent doesn't seem at all concerned that the chick is gone, nor particularly pleased to get it back again at the end of the weighing. The babies are absolutely adorable - all grey and fluffy and with plump
little tummies. They didn't seem at all put out by the indignities they were subjected to, although I suspect that this is largely a testament to skill of the biologist who was handling them.

For most of the day the bright yellow helicopter was busy ferrying goods between the ship and Cap Prudhomme. Cap Prudhomme is on the coast of Antarctica (Dumont d'Urville is actually on a small island), and is therefore the starting point for the overland traverse that takes all the heavy equipment to Dome C. It's also where the Twin Otter landing strip is. Watching the huge crates swinging on ropes below the helicopter as it flew swiftly over the sea was quite awe-inspiring.
Every part of our AASTINO, which we will be assembling at Dome C next week, will have been through this experience.

Dinner was excellent as always - couscous for starters, then a main course of "lapin" (which, in order not to offend the sensibilities of our younger readers, I will not translate).

The final surprise awaited us on our return to the wharf. The barge that previously had taken us across the bay to and from l'Astrolabe was full of nets and ugly-looking fish, and not really in a fit state to transport people. Instead, we were loaded four at a time into a 12-foot dingy with an outboard motor. Cruising across to the l'Astrolabe was a magical experience, sitting just centimetres from the water and sliding past great ice sheets dripping with icicles. One piece of ice had a
large cave cut into it by the sea. Looking inside it appeared almost to glow with an intensely deep blue colour. We motored around the bow of the l'Astrolabe, looking up at her for the first time from water level, and along her side to the berth. Scrambling aboard via the hold we discovered that the hold was essentially empty, a vast empty space that 36 hours ago had been packed with boxes, bulldozers and earthmoving equipment. We briefly considered holding a spontaneous dance party but in the end we were all just too tired.

Tomorrow we expect the Twin Otter to arrive at noon, and to be on our way to Dome C by 1 pm. Then the real work begins!

Bad-hair day

Last night we left, inside the AASTINO, a tank full of Jet-A1 with some
open pipes not particularly connected to anything. We therefore decided
not to leave the electrical heater on, in case a spark from the
thermostat ignited the fuel vapours. We don't want the AASTINO to blow
up while we're not there. If it's going to blow up, we want to be there
to see it.

As a result, it was -6.5 C in the AASTINO when we arrived this morning.
We put the heater on and, over the course of the morning, the
temperature gradually rose to more comfortable levels.

One of the first tasks was to finish construction of the Supervisor
computer, which will run all of the instruments once we have returned to
Sydney. For this we required a small piece of three-ply timber or
similar to mount the PC104 computer stack on. We cast our eyes around
the AASTINO but of course there was none. You never have the right kind
of junk when you need it - in fact, the AASTINO is totally devoid of
anything not already important to the project. However, there are two
items that we brought down that we haven't actually found a need for
yet. One is a really nifty bright red tool-holder that I bought on
impulse from Bunnings and which would obviously be incredibly useful if
it were just ever so slightly different from the way it is. The other
is a small whiteboard, which would also be handy under somewhat
different circumstances (e.g., if we could find somewhere to put it),
but which was now starting to look increasingly like a piece of
three-ply. Fortunately for the whiteboard, lunch intervened, and I took
the opportunity to raid the carpentry shop for a piece of three-ply that
had no aspirations to be either a whiteboard or anything more ambitious.

During lunch, Karen (an EPICA scientist) entertained us with tales from
Norse mythology, including a creation story that described how the world
began with a cow licking a large block of ice. This was as plausible as
most such stories, and considerably more picturesque. It makes
particular sense here, where some people spend their spare time making
elaborate ice sculptures. For example, the entrance to the
Communications Room is guarded by two very fine penguins, while across
the "village square", between two of the dormitory tents, are an igloo,
a Chinese pagoda, a fish and a giant snail.

After lunch, we made final preparations for starting the engines, and
experimented with various ways of displaying the flags we have of the
four countries involved in this project (Australia, Italy, France and
the US). One problem is that flags don't fly very well in the absence
of wind. Jon and Tony tried hanging them like sheets from a
clothesline, but the result was neither visually appealing nor
structurally stable. We'll try something else tomorrow.

In the AASTINO we plugged the Supervisor into the 24 Volt bus and
immediately experienced the usual sanity-threatening problems that occur
whenever you get involved with computers. Fortunately we were able to
call Michael Ashley in Sydney by Iridium phone. Michael is a Linux guru
and he was able to resolve the problems instantly. Sometimes I think
Michael is a bit puzzled that I find this computer stuff so difficult,
but he's very good humoured about it.

We fuelled the engines and filled the coolant lines. One of the coolant
pumps leaked, and was found to have a cracked housing. Fortunately we
have a spare, but by then the faulty pump had thoroughly undermined our
good intentions not to spill not a drop of glycol on the floor.
Bleeding the fuel lines was straightforward but slow, as the fuel system
is now a very complicated array of valves, filters, couplings, an
auxiliary tank and two very large main tanks.

At around six we were ready to fire up the engines, but ended up
completely frustrated. Both engines suffered panic attacks during the
start-up process, and shut themselves down. Part of the cleverness of
the Stirling engines is that they are extremely clean burning, and hence
ideal for Antarctica. To keep pollution to a minimum they use an oxygen
sensor in the exhaust, similar to those used in modern cars. The oxygen
sensor decides every second or so how much fuel is needed to keep
everything working in an optimum way, and adjusts the fuel pump
accordingly. Unfortunately, the sensors in both engines claim that
there is not enough oxygen in the air here, even when the engine isn't
running. The sensors are right of course, but they are going to have to
live with it, just like we do. This may take some work.

The weather today was quite different - completely overcast with thick
white cloud, and snowing little crystals of ice. We were pleased that
we had had such good weather yesterday when we moved the AASTINO. Even
though we can't see the sun most of today, the solar panels are working
well and putting out just enough power to keep the 24 Volt batteries
fully charged. That was pretty well the only good thing about today.

And Jean-Louis has run out of eggs and fresh vegetables...

1. don't read this!

03 jan 03 - Paolo G. Calisse

While the Storey, Lawrence & Travouillon's trio is vomiting from Hobart to Dumont D'Urville on board of the Gastrolabe French vessel, I'm stuck in Christchurch as usual, trying to do my trip to the South Pole and start my first winterover in Antarctica. Now, given the fact that my reports can't cope with the one from the 3 guys talking about engines power and French movies, you don't have to apologize if you will not carefully read my chronicles. I'll write the remaining 299 in any case.

This morning, as usual, I just awaken at 5 am in Christchurch. At 5:20 someone called from the reception and said that "sdlkgaj andv qeoriqvn asoda iagnpa aspoihat ajthqa- ihaja rfgbnber". I immediately understood that "the flight was postponed 24 hours due to bad weather". Well, I didn't really understood that, I supposed that there was only one reason to call me at that hour, and I realized that this should be the meaning of what the kiwi guy told me on the phone. I asked to confirm and the guy said that "sdlkgaj andv qeoriqvn asoda iagnpa aspoihat ajthqa- ihaja rfgbnber", that was good.

So, I put the disgusting instant coffee cup, half empty, on the side table and switched off the light to sleep again. Including the change of local time, this was for me 3:30am. Unfortunately, there was no way to sleep. I started to turn over and over in the bed like an hungry crocodile. The problem was probably the amount of caffeine contained in my blood, and the fact that I was freightened by the chance that I didn't understand exactly what the receptionist said, and began imaging the people already sitting in the aircraft, ready for take off, and suddenly realizing that "the stupid Italian is again late".

At the end I switched on the TV to watch at that "signature tunes only" american channell called "CNN". Well, I have to confess that in the middle, between one jingle and the other, for some reasons I couldn't explain, there were also some real news. Now, I think that CNN news have two unlikely effects on the whole world: first, the world itself looks at any time, on any day, as it is just on the border of the abyss. Also the International Flower Exhibition is presented by the CNN like if a thermonuclear war just started, and you will find that also the most likely tulip hide some biological weapon from Saddam like my boots after a whole season at the South Pole. Second, it helps in spreading out such a horrifying women suits and hairstyles than Monica Lewinskii looks like a beginner in comparison. And I don't know which of the two things is worst for the mental health of the mankind.

Anyway, at about the 15th citation of Al Qaida and the Iraqi UN Inspectors, that means about 2 minutes later, I was able to gain again Morpheos' embrace, and be awaken at 11 am only by the person that came to clean up my room.

I spent the rest of the days trying to collect the remaining things I need for my long stay in Antarctica. Nothing really needed, apart a spare umbrella, the grasscutter and the insecticide.

At dinner I met finally with Giles. Giles is the PI of the instrument, VIPER, I will look about for the whole winter at South Pole. I spoken to him once in McMurdo in summer 2000, and a couple of times on the phone.

We went to eat "a very good pizza". This is what Giles said. We went there and did that quick fork & knife job, talking about the VIPER, and an amazing number of other aspects of life. At the end we discovered that both of us are descendant from a pirates family, yes, true pirates, that is an amazing thing considering the low probability to meet a pirate, today, that is neither a lawyer nor a doctor.

My ancestor was "operating" close to Ischia, a pretty Island close to Napoli still plenty of people called Calise (with one "s", I'll tell you why only if you will personally write me), while his own was "working" along the North Europe's coastline. For all the dinner I couldn't stop to imagine two person slightly resembling us dressing a bandage on one eyes and boarding the Empire's ships in a rough and stormy sea. The only real difference was that my ancestor was eating a really excellent pizza.

Most amazingly, in terms of coincidences, his father was for a long period the first trumpet in the Italian Television Orchestra (Orchestra della RAI) based in Rome, my town. Giles told me he played the very popular signature tune that ended the programs at midnight till for several decades till about 15 or 20 years ago. Any Italian older than 30, can still sing it (but not, like people seems to think around the world, "O' sole mio"). So, amazingly, I probably listened him playing hundred times. The music, for the interested ones, was from the Ottorino Respighi "the Pines of Rome", but I'm not so sure about that (can anyone help down there?).

Now, as I already told you I do not pretend you find this diary's entry so interesting, but I like the idea that everyone in the world, also if living 10,000 or more km away, is linked to each other by several, invisible and thin wires.

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