Saturday, February 02, 2008

The end is nigh

Base is changing. The ice breaker has come and gone. The fuel ship has come and gone. The only major events of the season left are cargo vessel offload and station closing. In preparation for vessel offload, our population has swelled to over our maximum capacity of 1,100. We actually have around 1,300 beds, but our maximum is regulated by the amount of water we can produce and the number of people the galley can feed. We exceeded our capacity because we brought in the NAVCHAPS (Navy Cargo Handlers and Pier Support?) who do most of the work for unloading the vessel.

These young men and women aren't looked upon favorably by station because they aren't part of the community. They come in for a couple weeks after everyone else has already made their friends and is ready to go home, they do their job, and leave. They didn't choose to come here and many of them don't seem to understand why we are here. In the past, some earned all of them a bad name by stealing out of rooms. To this day, everyone says lock your doors when the NAPCHAPS come to town.

Additionally, they are used to being allowed to recreate more freely at their other postings, even in the Middle East. Their options here are so limited that they've been overheard saying all there is to do is walk and exercise. We do have a few more options, but unfortunately gear issue is closed for end of season inventory. Others were mad that they couldn't rent a snow machine. None of us get to. They've been busted smoking in non-smoking lounges and trying to hide it by hanging out the window. I haven't seen that one other time this year. It reminds of my freshman year of college. I don't have a perspective to know how they normally live, but it definitely isn't in line with what we've come to expect from our base down here. I can't imagine it makes this a fun place for them either.

Vessel offload is our busiest time of year. Lots of people who normally only work nine hours a day are expected to work twelve hour days. They don't always get their days off. Some people who have been working days the entire season our forced over to nights to make sure we can unload the vessel 24 hours a day. The bars even close for the week of offload. It is tough to relax.

To make matters worse, people are also ready to go home. It is the end of the season and everyone has travel plans. They can't commit to flights though because their redeployment dates are likely to be changed based on vessel offload. I think some people were delayed up to a week because the vessel was stuck in a storm and will be late. That is all the negative on base, I think.

There are still plenty of positives though. Life here still offers up amazing things regularly. The sun will set later this month. Consequently, we are seeing our first twilight in months. It is amazing to see an evening light change the way we look at everything. Friends are trying to spend their last few weeks together. Winter overs are hunkering down. I'm learning to skate ski. I got to see a skua territorial or food battle yesterday. There are more seals than ever before and we can see open water for the first time in months. The people here are still wonderful and I'm trying to maximize my time with them before they all go. I'm really bummed they are all leaving, but when the galley looks like it does in the picture below, I'm very ready for winter when everyone leaves. Being over the max makes it feel very crowded.

Crowded galley.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Lost Distance Balloon

A Long Distance Balloon in front of the sun.

One of the major science experiments we have had down here the past few years are NASA's Long Distance Balloon (LDB) experiments. We launched three balloons this year and I believe the final one, CREAM, was retrieved yesterday after 32 days in flight. It was collecting data on ultra high energy cosmic rays over the elemental range from protons (If you can explain that in laymen terms, please do). It weighed 4,141 lbs. In general, the balloons can be as large as 1.5 football fields. I believe the longest balloon flight ever was 42 days.

At launch, the payload is the white box and solar panels attached to the crane on the left. The orange and white tanks should be helium to fill up the balloon.

When I was on my flag pulling trip, we got to see the first balloon launch from a distance. We could see it rising for hours because it travels up to around 125,000 ft. It was pretty amazing. This particular balloon orbited the continent twice so we also got to see is pass over town again about twenty days later. Amazing.

An LDB launch in the distance the day of my boondoggle.

A map of the path that the balloon took these past 32 days.

A lot of the science they are doing is beyond me, so I am just going to provide you with a link to their webpage. MikeLo, any chance you work with any of the people on that project? Ellie was on a different NASA project that worked with robots so I don't think they are related. Whoever these guys are, they work hard. When they finally get ready to launch, they need specific conditions to launch. If they think they are going to have them, they stay out at the launch pad and hope. I think some of them were up over 24 hours waiting for the right conditions and they didn't always come so they had to scrap it for another day. There was a huge sigh of relief from this group when their balloons were finally airborne.

Cream in front of Mt. Erebus.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Icebreaker Oden

We get planes in through the entire summer season. We start to take them for granted and I even disassociate them with the civilization they are going back to. I think that might be because I'm not going back anytime soon, I'm not sure. Others might do it too though. We stop getting excited when we see planes. However, when the first ship comes in of the season, everyone seems to be out watching. The ship is not only coming from the outside world, but it is also breaking up the sea ice which leads to us eventually seeing open water. For the few days up the ice breakers docking, everyone was speculating how long it would take to break through the ice all the way to base.

The Oden icebreaker in the distance

The icebreaker a few days later

The day of docking.

The orange pole in the lower right corner is part of the pier system where the ship will come into dock. The actual ice pier is below the picture.

I was fortunate to be able to volunteer to be a line handler. Line handlers help all the vessels that come into port to tie up. We were supposed to get the ice breaker, a fuel ship, a cargo ship, a research ship, and four expedition cruise ships. It's a lot of fun to do something outside of your normal job. If we are lucky, we line handle during our regular hours so we get out of work. It also gives us a chance to get up close and personal with the ship. For our first line handling experience, it also gave me a chance to see my second and third penguins of the season.

Two adelie penguins came in to see what all the ado was about.

Those same two adelie penguins beside the ice pier trying to a closer look of the action.

The Oden in front of Mt. Discovery.

The Oden finally getting close to the ice pier and these two unsuspecting penguins.

One Adelie penguin finally takes notice of the large ship.

While the one is still taking notice of the ship coming, the other one decides to start fleeing.

Run away, run away!

With good reason, the penguins fled the scene. The Oden uses water jets and sheer might to break up the ice and move it out of the way.

The aftermath of the Oden coming into port.

Just after the Oden made port, they used loaders/bulldozers to move all the ice back into the ocean, which would leave the ice pier free for vehicles and cargo. A lot of the line handlers left without even touching a line because there were so many of us. They only had a few lines and the ice pretty much kept the ship in its place. Either way, it was still fun to get out and play.

Since its first docking, the Oden has come in and out a few times and widened the channel. However, even after the first trip it opened things so much you could see the channel via satellite.

Satellite imagery of the ice breakes path.