Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Departure of the Gould

"Line handlers to the pier !" was the call that rang out across the station.

Today was the day for departure of the Gould, the ship that brought us summer people in and is taking the winter people back to Chile. It gave me a reason to reflect on the changes that had taken place since I arrived a week ago. Of course I was more trained on my job, and I had gotten to know my co-workers. But I was thinking more about the changes in the water and sky. Since we arrived on an icy day, the sea ice in the harbor had moved in and out almost daily. I was fascinated by this phenomenon. On some mornings we awoke to find that the surface of the water was crowded thick with pancake ice, and then, just as suddenly, by afternoon the ice had moved on. Other days we watched big chunks of icebergs float in almost to station, twist and twirl and then, seemingly vanish. The ice almost seemed to breath. This morning the area in front of station was clear. We call the two bodies of water around our point Hero Inlet and Arthur Harbor and the ice had blown out from both overnight.

While it was here, the ship was tied up with enormous lines at the bow and stern, and the week of snow and ice since had frozen and buried them. When word came over the radios to free the ship, we went to work. Digging and hacking at the ice together, the seven of us on the stern team freed the lines.

The ship began to pull away and we waved goodbye. What to do next ? In commemoration of the departing crew, lots of folks participated in an uniquely Palmer tradition - the polar bear swim. Starting with Ken's backwards somersault, they lined up to jump into the -1 deg C water. Brrrrr....

All I can say about the swimming was that it looked very painful and was very short. This is a somewhat crazy place.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

60,000 gallons of fuel

Palmer station is powered by twin diesel generators, the fuel for which is stored in the big white tanks on the hill. One of our tasks while the ship is here was to transfer over enough fuel for the next six months into our tanks. Because it carries a high risk of spillage, a big no-no under the Antarctic Conservation Act, this was a high stress operation that we've been planning for days. Today we started early.

First we ran a hose from the ships hold, across the gangway to the fixed pipe on station.

Every few feet we placed cut off clamps that could isolate a bad section of hose.

Then, we turned pumps on aboard the ship to push the fuel towards station and took shifts watching the hose. With five people on duty at a time and fueling taking 6 hours, this took almost everyone on station. We watched the hose couplings, we watched the pumps, we walked the hose and inspected where it lay across the gangway.

And, at the end of the day, we had transferred 60,000 gallons of fuel with not even a drop spilled.

Monday, September 22, 2008

First Days at Work

The day after we arrived, it was time to get to work. The clear and calm weather that had greeted us on our arrival was gone and we were in for several days of icing and high wind.

Several of my most enjoyable tasks are outdoors. In good weather, being outside gives me astounding views of the glacier, station and nearby islands. But in wind, rain and icing, the work is shadowed by concerns of hypothermia or injury. This week, since lots of the weather fell into the rain and icing category, every task became an adventure, performed with blowing ice and snow stinging my face. For the VLF experiment, my regular tasks include climbing the glacier along the route of our cable and chipping it out of the ice.

Another task I do regularly is collect air samples to be sent back to labs at NOAA and Scripps. What scientists want to get in these samples is the clean air of Antarctica, the most pristine in the world. What they don't want to get is my exhaled breathe in the samples. So, I get to operate the equipment while I hold my breathe. Out on the snow and rocks this is more challenging than it was in the lab in Boulder. On the day I took my first samples, the only possible spot was surrounded by knee deep snow with a crusty layer of ice on top. With icy rain lashing my face my job was to place the collection unit, run away and then run back stop the sampling device. I went through this a couple of times just to make sure I got a sample without a trace of my own breath.

Down at station, here's what the ship looks like at dock. Its a dominant and familiar presence. Along with the other summer people I came in with, I am sleeping aboard until space becomes available in the station buildings. The photo is of Diane, the station chef delivering bagels to the ship's crew.