Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2003/04

   

   
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Wednesday, November 26, 2003

I am the walrus

At least, I looked like a walrus after emerging from the crypt this morning, with frozen beard and hair and icicles hanging off my face. In the crypt is (or at least was) Icecam, an experiment that runs completely independently of the AASTINO, and which also acquires data for yet another instrument, COBBER.

Icecam looks at the sky and takes a photo every couple of hours throughout the year, thereby telling us if it's cloudy or not. The camera itself is on the roof of a small shed, while the batteries and electronics are buried in a crypt some 7 metres below the ice. We do this because ice is an excellent insulator, with the result that anything more than a few metres below the surface stays at a constant temperature all year - in this case about -50C. (If we left things on the surface they would cool in mid-winter to below -80 C, at which temperature all batteries - and most other things - stop working completely.) At -50 C, a big pack of lithium batteries can keep our instrument running happily all year; even the instrument itself doesn't mind being this cold. Icecam records all the data on a Flash Disk, but sends us a summary of what's happening via the Argos satellite network.


Unfortunately, working in the crypt is not for the faint-hearted. You descend down a gloomy shaft below the surface via a long, vertical aluminium ladder for 7 metres, then enter a shipping container whose roof is sagging under the weight of the snow above it. It is bitterly cold (-50C, as always at this depth), dimly lit and extremely cramped. In the container to either side, and taking up almost all the available space, are huge tanks of glycol which were intended to provide a thermal buffer. At one stage it was hoped the crypt could be heated by wind power to a respectable temperature, then people remembered there's almost no wind at Dome C.

On top of the glycol tanks on one side is a bench, which is mostly covered in old batteries. The other side is filled to the ceiling with shelves, which also carry an interesting assortment of old batteries. This leaves a "corridor" about half a metre wide down which you can walk, stepping over the Caterpillar bulldozer batteries that obstruct the route and which are, more often than not, leaking acid across the floor. Frankenstein would have rejected this place outright as far too intimidating to use as a lab.

At the far end of the container, half hidden by another Caterpillar bulldozer battery, there is Icecam! We brought down a computer monitor to see what Icecam was thinking (which turned out to be not very much). Of course all the cables were frozen absolutely rigid - Anna took a photo of one of our mains leads standing vertically like an Indian rope trick. Connecting things up was a major trial. The final obstacles to rapid progress are that you can't see what you're doing because the air is filled with clouds of fog from your breath, and as soon as you remove your gloves to do anything, your fingers drop off.

Preparing to enter the crypt involves first donning as many clothes as you can find, then alerting the Radio Room to contact you every 30 minutes to check the whole thing hasn't caved in or a battery fallen on your head, then taking with you every tool you could possibly need because you certainly don't want to go back for anything. We first checked Icecam to see what it was doing, then ripped everything out as quickly as we could before either the walkie-talkie batteries or ourselves froze solid. Anna also took some amazing photos which will appear in due course in the next photo essay.


I've worked in the crypt in previous years, but only late in the season when it's been heated up to a respectable temperature like -30 C. Today the thermometer on the wall read -50 C and, believe me, it felt like it.

Lunch would have been good even if it had been baked beans, but much more was promised when I saw Jean Louis carrying two of the largest lobsters I have ever seen into the kitchen. Sure enough, lunch was one of Jean Louis' best: the combination of a prawn and lobster pilaf with a quail and grape main dish is not one I would attempted to create myself, but it was of course a veritable masterpiece.

It is worth noting in passing that at this altitude water boils at around 88 C. The fact that the chef can create anything vaguely edible is remarkable; that his cuisine is as haute as Dome C itself speaks volumes for his skills.

Yesterday the Station Manager noticed me battling through the French copy of the Metro newspaper that is received here each day electronically, and asked if here was an Australian newspaper I'd like to read. I suggested the Sydney Morning Herald and, sure enough, there was a copy of the electronic version on the table this morning. It would have been better if the lead article had not been a damning but distressingly accurate critique of Australia's current foreign policy, but nevertheless it was a treat to read English for a change.

I actually started this morning with a nice hot shower, which I do from time to time when I think I'm starting to smell too bad. Unlike South Pole, which has a strict limit of two 2-minute showers per week, Dome C places no restrictions on showers. I guess Italians aren't very big on rules anyway. It's only the knowledge in the back of my mind that it takes an awful lot of energy to melt snow (333 kJ/kg, from memory) that prevents me spending a good part of each day there.

The only problem with the shower is that it is in a different building to my comb. By the time I cross to the second building my still damp hair has frozen stiff. It is surprisingly difficult to comb frozen hair.


Today's final formal task was to photograph Anna posing with the penguin. There is a snow penguin, about 50 cm high, that someone built outside the Radio Room last summer. I have a photo of Rita, the then radio operator, pretending to pat it. Now I have a matching photo of Anna doing the same, and I will use this pair of photos in talks I give to astronomers about Dome C. Why, you ask? Because I don't believe there is anywhere else in the world where the wind is so low, and the snow fall so light, that a 50 cm snow penguin would still be even remotely recognisable one year on.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the chocolate, Amaretto and pistachio desert that concluded dinner. I am typing this diary quickly tonight so I can go to bed early, and hence get up early tomorrow, when there still should be some left over for breakfast.

John

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