Saturday, February 11, 2012

Last Days in Chillyville

Today marks the last day of my Bi-Polar adventure. What started at the top of the world now comes to a close at the bottom. These last few months have been memorable for more than just being some of the coldest of my life. For me, this has been a worldly experience filled with culture and remote wilderness. Both ends of the Earth showcased incredible animals adapted to live in such extreme places. This included penguins, polar bears, musk ox, Bowhead, beluga, grey, and Minke whales, Weddell seals, snowy owls, and Arctic foxes. The culture ranged from the native Inupiat and their whaling practices to the bearded, vivid lifestyle of the residents at McMurdo Station. My work was a large part of this experience as well. Whales and balloons were the reasons for these wild locales.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure
From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

I feel incredibly blessed. Not only for the opportunity to experience these places, but for the opportunity to share them with all of my friends and family back home. I enjoyed writing this blog as much as I truly hoped you enjoyed reading it. In my time between Antarctic deployments I would run into folks who'd said they had been following my blog or were really enjoying my pictures. This really meant a lot to me, more than you know. It was really special to be able to share this experience with you.

As a goodbye and farewell, I bring to you what many people have been asking me for for of PENGUINS!!!

Stay warm friends! :)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and the Discovery Hut

Antarctica has an incredible history behind its exploration and as it turns out, a huge portion of it was based out of Ross Island, which is where McMurdo station is located. They called this the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton both spent time on Ross Island nearly 100 years ago as they were exploring the great white continent. There are a number of shelters which still stand today around the small island, including one called the Discovery Hut, which is located just outside of town. From the outside, it actually looks quite modern as the wood and structure of the building are in very good condition.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The 2 explorers I've done the most reading about are Scott and Shackleton. Their stories really demand more than just a summary, but here goes:

Scott was a British Royal Navy Officer whose claim to fame was his ill-fated journey to the South Pole starting in 1910. It turned out that at the very same time, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was trying to be the first to reach the South Pole. It was truly a race to be the first. Amundsen reached the Pole first and successfully returned from his journey. Scott reached the pole, now being the 2nd to do so, and died on his return journey home. A cross sits just outside of McMurdo Station in honor of Capt. Scott.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Shackleton was a British explorer whose first real historical impact was in 1909 when he led of team of 3 others to the southernmost point humans had ever visited, 97 miles from the south pole. He lived and eventually returning in 1914 to lead the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The goal of this expedition was to be the first to cross the entire continent. On the way south though, his ship was caught in pack ice and became permanently stuck. Eventually the ship was destroyed and the 28 men had to abandon ship. They drifted for about a year on sea ice which was being blown north by the wind. The crew then made a truly mad dash for a nearby island, which took 3-4 days of straight sailing. From here, Shackleton and a small crew sailed one of their small boats across the Drake Passage, notoriously the stormiest sea on Earth, to a small whaling facility nearly 1000 miles away. Shackleton returned to the rest of his crew nearly a year after he left them. All 28 men survived.

As mentioned, the Discovery Hut was used by both Explorers as well as others a century ago. It is now being preserved as a museum. I was fortunate enough to take a tour!

My time on the frozen continent draws nearly to a close. Stay warm!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Seal Wrasslin': Because someone's gotta wrassle 'em

With Happy Camper now in the rear view mirror, it was time to get back to work...WORK WITH SEALS that is!!! As it turned out, one of my friends from the Arctic whale surveys also does seal research down here. She asked me if I wanted to help with seal physiological studies. I'm no biologist but I was pretty sure that by "physiological studies" she actually meant "SEAL WRASSLIN'! I put on my seal wrasslin t-shirt and begrudgingly accepted.

The seals we were studying were Weddell seals and apparently they are hermits because they lived way out in the boons. Not once in my entire time at McMurdo did I ever see a seal at the cardio gym OR the laundry room. Zero times. Was it then a coincidence that when we pulled our snowmobiles up to the first group of lounging seals that they were both overweight AND smelly?? The evidence is staggering. Anyhow, when the group was ready for action, we hopped on snowmobiles and cruised for about 30-40 minutes out to the first congregation of seals.

As we roared up on our snow machines, I could see maybe 15 or 20 seals just loungin around on the ice. It was like pulling up to a retirement beach in Florida with all the lazy lounging that was going on. Take a look! Can you tell which blubbery mammal lives in Florida?

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Had to think about it didn't ya? I had to remind myself that I was in Antarctica before I could get back to work. Anyhow, it was clear that these seals had a busy day of loungin ahead of them.

It pained me to disturb creatures that were so tirelessly pursuing their dream of relaxing. They were like those worker bees who spend their whole life slaving away at mastering their craft. Their craft just happened to be laying there. It was truly inspiring.

Anyhow, we did eventually do some work out there but I'm not really supposed to talk about it because I wasn't on the seal permit. So with that I leave you with these pictures of adorable seal pups. You'll forget that I'm too lazy to write a thorough post about this day in no time....

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Happy Camper and the Antarctic Igloo

It was a mere few days on the continent when I found out that I was required to participate in something called "Happy Camper". I couldn't help but let my imagination run wild about the tortures involved with such a sarcastically named program. As it turned out, Happy Camper was a 1 day Antarctic survival course catered to researchers who would be at risk of getting stranded somewhere out on the continent. I was part of the 2 man team that would recover the telescope once it had landed. This would require a flight of over 100 miles from McMurdo Station, which in turn sealed my fate as a participant of Happy Camper.

The first morning of the program was surprisingly low key. There were 20 participants and 2 teachers and we all met in a classroom in town. For the first 2-3 hours we got a crash course in Antarctic survival. We covered the basics of staying warm which boiled down to: eat a lot, drink a lot, sleep a lot, wear a lot, and uh…treat others how you would like to be treated. Ok so I'll admit that I forgot the 5th one. Anyhow, after all the classroom work, we headed out to the field where much of the remainder of the class would be held. We were off to spend a night camped out on the ice.

The campsite was about 5 miles from McMurdo and was literally located on the ice from the Ross Ice Shelf. The first thing they showed us was how to set up camp. This involved setting up mountaineering tents, a Scott tent (very warm, teepee style polar tent), and making snow blocks which would be used to set up a wall to block the wind on the tents. I've sent up plenty of tents before, but the snow block thing was really neat. Because it is so windy and cold most of the year, the snow is densely packed and very dry. We simply used hand saws to cut into the snow. It cut like foam: very clean lines and easy to saw into. The blocks were then popped out of the ground and were stacked to create a wall large enough to shield about 10 tents from strong winds.

One of the more adventurous sleeping methods attracted a few of the campers. The concept was to dig a snow trench, which in a scary number of ways compared to a snow grave. The snow trench was dug about 6 feet down and was not much larger than your body length and width. At this point, a small side car was carved into the wall of the trench about a foot off the floor. The idea was to create a cold-sink, which is creates a place for the densest, coldest air to settle while you sleep above in the relative warmth. I was briefly tempted into digging a trench for the night but opted for a 3rd option: an igloo! A fellow happy camper from New Zealand shared my passion for dome-like sleeping structures and we went to work. It took 2 or 3 hours before it was inhabitable, but by 11PM, it was pretty much perfect. Well minus the huge gaps between the blocks where snow and wind could blow through. And the roof that was made of sleds. And the persistent fear that the whole structure would collapse on us while we were sleeping. But besides that, it was basically perfect.

That night before I crawled into my sleeping bag, I was truly bracing for what would likely be the coldest night of my life. I activated a couple hand warmers, tossed them in my bag, and drifted off to sleep. It was either the incredible quality of our igloo, or the fact that it was about 35 degrees and sunny and you almost literally could have slept out in the open on the snow without getting cold, but the record for 'coldest night sleep' went unchallenged. You remain champion for another day 'night sleeping on my buddies couch in his freezing apartment with a t-shirt as a blanket'. May you forever go unchallenged.

In hindsight, my Happy Camper experience was incredibly positive! It was hands down the most enjoyable day in Antarctica to date. Plus, I learned how to melt snow into drinking water, tend to hypothermic comrades, and look so busy making an igloo that I wasn't asked to help make dinner. If these aren't the life skills that we all so desperately need, then I don't know what are.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Return to the Frozen Continent

So you may or may not have noticed that I pretty much just disappeared on this blog. For those of you who check up on this blog every day (pretty much just my mom), the last 6 weeks of silence were probably the longest blog related weeks of all time. My absence from blog world is well justified though. You see, there was this crazy radioactive explosion down here and all the wildlife was transformed into radioactive supermonsters which ran amuck through town for the last 6 weeks. FORTUNATELY, I left the continent before that happened so I've still got all my limbs and brains. I even got to spend Christmas with my family! Reeeally glad I missed that whole radioactive monster thing. It sounded horrible.

So after a long, totally non-Arctic or Antarctic holiday break, I'm happy to report that as of today I've ventured back to the ice. The main objective of this return is to finish my blog. A subsidiary objective is to retrieve the 10 million dollar telescope that was launched a few weeks back. The telescope, which successfully flew at about 120,000' for over two weeks, had finally touched back down on the continent as of this last weekend (January 28th). Here's a shot of the balloon being tracked live on the web:

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

This was just a few days before it finally came down. Very exciting!

Anyhow, so I'm back and my second deployment to Antarctica gave me a second chance to film the view leaving the C-17 military plane after landing on the ice. I filmed this video this afternoon.

It took 2 full days of travel to get from Tucson, AZ to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I must say, the 2nd go around was much more casual and relaxed. I felt like I was returning to summer camp for the 2nd time. Today marked the return of lots of familiar faces, 2nd helpings of dessert, and the first penguin of my entire Antarctic deployment. There's much left to tell chilly travelers. Stay warm until next time....

Monday, December 12, 2011

Long Duration Balloon Animals

So I was as surprised as anyone when I found out that I was supposed to be working while I was down in Antarctica. I know, a shock right?! Was it so wrong to think that people go down there to have raging euro rave parties? Let's just say I got some bad information before I left for the trip (who'd have thunk that I'd find bad info on the nothing sacred?!?). Anyhow, my task at hand was beyond taking pictures and writing a blog. For the past 3 years I've been doing grad research at the University of Arizona. Specifically, I'm a slave..I mean a student researcher at Steward Observatory (essentially the astronomy dept).

In a nutshell, the project is a balloon telescope. So what's a balloon telescope? Is it just a balloon that's shaped like a telescope? Was it created by a balloon animal artist or clown? Well the answer to most of those questions is yes! A large part of it is definitely balloon shaped and though the team mostly consists of engineers, astronomers, and physicists, we're essentially just clowns with degrees! Example 1: these are literally the only 3 pictures of me working down there.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure
From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure
From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Not even kidding. Hammering a gym weight, wearing a garbage bag, and wearing my huge jacket while sitting at my computer. And yes I graduated from clown college.

The best way to explain this project is that it is a radio astronomy telescope which will be flown from a high elevation balloon. The balloon, which will be launched in Antarctica, will carry the telescope to about 120,000' where it will remain for anywhere from 2 weeks to a month. There are some key reasons why a telescope would be launched on a balloon in Antarctica. First off, the elevation which the balloon flies is basically in space. At 120,000' the absorption due to molecules in the atmosphere is gone. Compared to a space telescope (which as you've guessed is also in space (you're so smart!)), it is literally an order of magnitude (10 times) less expensive. You also can retrieve the telescope when it's done flying whereas in a space telescope, it's out there for good and fixing it is out of the question if something doesn't work. Launching balloons from Antarctica is particularly efficient compared to launching elsewhere on Earth. The reason is that when the balloon flies, it will circle the pole, and can be made to land practically in the same place that you launched it! Pretty cool huh?

Though I pretend to be a lot of things in life, being an astronomer is not one of those things. Regardless, here is my understanding of the science this telescope is doing. The telescope will fly for between 2 weeks and a month. The name of the combined instrument is the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory (STO). While in the air, it will be doing a galactic survey of the Milky Way galaxy. While observing at wavelengths that are a nearing 1 millimeter, the targets are nebulae, or gas clouds. Gas clouds are the precursors to stars. As the gas cloud collapses due to its own gravity, its energy level increases and the star ignites. Observations have been made regarding the thermal nature of the outside of these gas clouds, but little has been done to characterize the inside. This is what STO is able to accomplish: it can generate a thermal map of the interior of these gas clouds. In doing so, astronomers hope to learn more about how stars are formed. The underlying science is essentially cosmology, or the study of the origins of our universe. Whoooh! I hope you got all that :) My job as an engineer is much simpler to explain: to use my inability to socialize and communicate effectively to put the instrument together. Done and done!

The facility itself is a very cool place called LDB, the Long Duration Balloon facility. LDB is actually an off-site facility which is located about 6 miles from McMurdo station. Whereas McMurdo is on an Island (Ross Island), LDB is located on an ice shelf (Ross Ice Shelf). So every morning, the whole team commutes 40 minutes on the largest bus known to man to a balloon launching facility that's been built on a floating chunk of glacial ice. Besides all the ridiculous stuff, it's pretty much no different than my normal work life in Tucson.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Antarctica and the Sun that Refuses to Set

Frigid....brutal...unforgiving. These are words often used to describe the harshest continent on earth. Not my words though. This is the Antarctic summer! We've got penguins playing beach volleyball, hippies playing frisbee golf, and homosexuals on rollerblades showing off how much fitter they are than you. But before your antarctic summer imaginings stray too far, you'll need to temper your expectations a bit. When I first stepped foot off that plane out onto the ice I braced for the absolute worst. I was also expecting penguin butlers but apparently the US government "forgot" to hire any this year. Stupid budget cuts. I was however pleasantly surprised at how moderate it actually was down here. Again this is the Antarctic summer and this was not the South Pole. In fact, there were days in November where it was actually colder in Minnesota than it was here in Antarctica. Just one more thing to think about as you draw ever closer into that dark, cold winter my Minnesota friends and family: it is literally warmer in Antarctica.

The other element of the Antarctic summer that was pleasantly surprising was the sun, which shines 24 hours a day, every day. It's a goth kid's worst nightmare. How are you expected to keep creepily pale with that damn sun out all the time?!? I really thought the perpetual sun would start wearing on my psyche but so far I've rather come to enjoy it. It's never difficult to wake up in the morning, I sleep like a rock so it's no biggy when it's bed time, and it keeps the weather much warmer all day. Leaving the bar at 1AM to a bright sunshiney day is a bit unnerving. Really makes you feel like a booze hound who's been pounding drinks all afternoon. Now that I think about it, it's probably horrible for anyone with a hangover. Goth kids and people with hangovers, those are the only people who dislike the perpetual sunshine. The only real downside of all the sunshine is something called snow blindness, which is essentially sun burn on your eyes (lovely, I know). On a clear day, everywhere you look is unbelievably bright. There is literally nowhere to divert your eyes from the brightness. It makes photography quite a bit easier but it requires everyone to wear sunglasses or ski goggles at all times outside. The native people in the Arctic solved this problem with wood glasses with slits in them called "Eskimo Goggles". And yes this was fashionable even before Kanye West found out about them.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The weather is of course a big deal down here. Vicious winds, snow, and cold can move in abruptly. Not only is it an inconvenience, it's dangerous. Getting caught away from base on foot, on skis, or even in a vehicle is risky business. There are stories of people having to take shelter in emergency shelters or by digging down into the snow. To classify the severity of the weather, a simple system has been developed which breaks down the various conditions into 3 parts. "Condition 3" is the best case scenario for weather. In this case, winds tend to be moderate and visibility is not hindered by blowing snow. "Condition 2" gets a little more scary with low visibility and high winds. Bitter cold often accompanies Condition 2. Travel between buildings / facilities is limited and frowned upon during Condition 2. "Condition 1" is the most fearsome of them all. In this scenario, visibility is non-existent due to high winds and blowing snow. The snowy wind not only prevents you from seeing beyond the reach of your hand, but the sound of it prevents you from even yelling to someone standing immediately next to you. Going outside during Condition 1 is strictly forbidden unless under the most extreme of scenarios (like if there is a Vikings game on and you are stuck somewhere without a TV). I have yet to experience anything but Condition 3.

Until next time, stay warm frozen friends! We travel soon the land of the balloons...