Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2003/04

   

   
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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Glycol and other spills

The day dawned on a beautifully clear morning - not a cloud in the sky and just the smoke from the generators and oil heaters mixing to create a slight haze across the station. The temperature dropped to -52C last night; the coldest weather I have ever experienced. Anna was feeling a bit unwell (which is not unusual here for the first few days), so I headed out to the AASTINO on my own. I was pleased to find it at a moderate temperature inside of -6C; not exactly balmy but certainly warm enough that I could get to work. I took with me a walkie-talkie, and the radio room promised to contact me every 30 minutes to check everything was OK.

I began by reading through the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) for ethylene glycol. It's not that it's a particularly nasty chemical, but I thought they might have some useful tips for cleaning it up. Indeed they did: "Use cautious judgement" was the advice proffered, and better advice is hard to imagine whatever the circumstances. The MSDS also helpfully suggested I keep the glycol "well away from children and pets" (OK, done that: the nearest example of either is several thousand kilometres away), and went on to recommend "Do not use in theatrical fogs". What do these people think we get up to down here? Toxic dose is about half a cup. Seems fair enough, and it's unlikely to kill in less than the 30 minutes that will elapse before the next radio room call comes in.

Armed with rubber gloves from the kitchen and a huge roll of paper towel, by lunchtime I had the AASTINO looking perfectly inhabitable. Although there's still a bit of glycol oozing out from under the batteries, I think it's clean enough now for us to have guests in. And the temperature is now up to -1.5C.

Anna was feeling much better after lunch, so we took a second fan-heater out to the AASTINO and continued cleaning up. Unfortunately the two big lead-acid batteries that supply back-up power to the computer had both split - one quite dramatically - and leaked out all their acid. Even more unfortunate was that the batteries were sitting on top of the aluminium fuel tanks, and the acid has left large corroded patches. It's not actually as bad as it sounds, but there's probably an engineering text book out there somewhere (called "How to design stuff right" or something similar) that says: "Do not sit lead-acid batteries on top of fuel tanks".

The final disaster was a squeeze bottle of what I assume was lubricating oil, which had somehow managed to empty itself over all our glues and solvents, while sitting perfectly upright and completely undamaged.

By now the temperature inside the AASTINO was above freezing, so we fired up the computer to see what would work and what wouldn't. Amazingly, it looks like the computer is fine and, now that the peripherals have thawed out, they're mostly working too. The circuit breaker to the Iridium phone has tripped - this could explain why it stopped talking to us, or could be another red herring. Tomorrow we'll do some serious trouble shooting.

The Eurotherm temperature controller, which is supposed to keep the AASTINO from getting too hot, is looking rather forlorn and has "EEErr" displayed on its screen. I assume it's some kind of error message but I can't find it in the manual - maybe it's the noise a temperature controller makes when it hits -85C and finds there's nothing it can do about it.

Meanwhile, Geanpiero has been searching the base for the past two days for our missing boxes which, according to Jon L., were to be taken away and stored at the end of the season. This afternoon Geanpiero finally admitted they were nowhere to be found and, not only that, he had no recollection of storing any boxes for us last season. It was at this stage that the slow and somewhat embarrassing realisation dawned on me: weren't there in fact four wooden boxes sitting right next to the AASTINO; boxes with snow drifts that we had admired and much photographed, and didn't these boxes have "AASTINO" written on them in large friendly letters - the one clue that we had given Geanpiero to guide him on his fruitless search? The human mind is extraordinary in its capacity to be fully aware of two ideas at once, and never see the connection between them no matter how obvious it is. Overpopulation and running out of natural resources are two other such concepts that come to mind.

We unscrewed the boxes (using the cordless screwdriver; having thawed out the batteries and charged them) and found them to contain everything we need, including the tent, the nitrogen cylinder for re-gassing the engines, and even the galvanised-iron garbage tin that sits outside the AASTINO and gives it a nice fifties retro feel.

By late afternoon things were in such good shape that we did a quick tour of the station on the snowmobile, swinging past our two remote instruments (COBBER and ICECAM) and noting them to be both satisfyingly free of ice. The temperature reached a maximum of only -40C today, so this was definitely a cold one.

Station life is very pleasant, with only 31 people here and no over-crowding. There will be no EPICA drilling this year. This is the major science project for the Station, but it has hit a bit of a snag. Apparently the drill (which, as can be imagined, is no ordinary drill but one that can bore straight down through over 3 kilometres of ice), was sealed in a container and shipped back to Belgium for refurbishment in time for the next season. However, when the still sealed container arrived in Belgium it was empty. No drill. Therefore, no drilling this year. One suspects space aliens again; they made off with all our resistors last year, and they're clearly getting bolder.

John

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