Thursday, December 30, 2010

That’s so Skua

Every little corner of the planet seems to have its own dialect, its own vocabulary.  McMurdo is no different.  One of the most fun bits of McMurdo dialect is the word ‘skua.’

A skua is a native Antarctic seabird of the family Stercorariidae...what on earth does that mean?  It is closely related to the gull family, has a wingspan of about four feet and weighs two to four pounds. Skuas are scavengers, or kleptoparasites [thank you Wikipedia] that tend to steal food from other animals (and from people) rather than hunting on their own.  They are a major problem in the region because the steal penguin eggs and have actually wiped out rookeries that were already stressed by global warming (resulting in the extinction of some penguin subspecies).
I decided not to fight him for the day-old hot dogs.

How did ‘skua’ enter the local dialect?  Well, these entertaining aerial pests frequent the station where they are renown for aggressive attempts to steal food, relentlessly chasing and dive-bombing people who carry uncovered food out of the galley.
Note the ankle bracelet -- this character has been in trouble before...

As a noun, skua is something left, donated, or stolen.  Every dorm has a skua bin in the trash area where you can put items you no longer need, but are still useable.  Popular items are sunscreen, shampoo, alarm clocks, and hand-me-down clothes.  Lost and found also feeds into the skua stream after a while, and these bins are periodically emptied and the contents moved to the skua shed where they are sorted and stored.

The skua shed is like a thrift store where everything is free.

Skua Central

As a verb, skua means “to scavenge.”  As in, “I skuaed this alarm clock.”  It can also be used as a term for petty theft, as in, “I totally skuaed that dude’s ipod.”  Luckily, the stealing has been low this year (I have not heard of any), though in some years it has been a problem.

How much for the breaker box?

Lastly, skua is an adjective.  A lot of local arts, crafts and costumes (costumes are very popular here), are made from whatever is lying around.  Such works of art have a certain ‘skua’ property to them.  Late one night in the galley, I saw a woman's video Christmas card.  It included music she had compiled, and art and costumes made from ‘found’ objects (found art).  Her friends commented “That is so skua.”  Which is a high compliment down here.

Had my eye on that steak sauce.

Interesting skua fact, which I skuaed from the local newspaper:

Skuas have made it as far as the South Pole:  Non-Human Life Form Seen at the Pole

Stay warm Northerners.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Eve in Mac Town

After working a ten hour day, crashing in a smelly, cramped dormitory, and wandering the dusty streets of McMurdo it does not feel much like Christmas. Still, the people here do what they can to try and get some Christmas Spirit going.

Sleigh won't start -- get the bikes

There have been a number of special events this week, including:
  • Cirque de Glace -- the women’s soiree I mentioned earlier.
  • Caroling, including our own version of the twelve days of Christmas (laden with penguins, skuas, and C-17s).
  • Snowflake day in the arts & crafts room, which were then used to decorate the galley.
  • A local production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”
  • Christmas movies.
  • A town party held in the vehicle maintenance bay.
  • Several departmental parties.
  • Decorations on the streets.
  • Spamming people’s doors
  • Giving people little gifts.
  • Many people wearing Santa hats or dressing in holiday clothes & costumes (several janos have been dressed as elves the last few days).
  • Getting smashed (the bars have been packed to the gills all week).
A lot of folks are hoping for packages from home which were expected to arrive before Christmas. However, there have been mechanical and weather problems, so we are in our 5th day with no plane. Ouch, as I was typing this, I heard that they boomeranged today’s flight (turned it around and sent it back to New Zealand due to zero visibility at the airfield) -- so it will be at least the 27th before we have fresh food…or mail… or beer. Yes, the station has been out of beer for days now, causing quite a ruckus.  Luckily there is still wine and whisky.

Pegasus Airfield under layer of ice fog

Guess the South Pole elves win again…the little Grinches

For me personally, it is the never-ending day and the lack of children that makes it seem very not like Christmas. There is no cold winter evening with glowing lights, a cheery fire, hot chocolate and a sparkling tree. Nor are there giggling children begging to open presents early, while writing a letter to Santa and putting out milk and cookies. What we do have are a lot of tired, lonely people trying to keep their spirits up a very, very long way from home.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

McMurdo Week 2

Three interesting things:
  1. The main entrance of each building is marked by a large red light.  This is so people can find the doors during white-out conditions.
  2. McMurdo station is located in the New Zealand claim.  Occasionally there is tension over this, such as when people on site misbehave on or near the Kiwi base and are dumb enough to post photos of this on the common drive.
  3. The night-crew (MidRats) flip their time orientation.  They hang out in the coffee shop in the morning, and talk about getting to bed before midnight (noon).  Since the sun never sets, that works great for keeping their internal clocks on track.
Another World
Just finished my second week.  Still enjoying it, though at times this place is like another planet, both physically and culturally.  Spent my day off writing, revised 15 chapters of ZPF, and wrote this lovely blog article for you to enjoy.

The weather

The weather has remained warm, near or a little above freezing most of the week.  There was one cold spell where it snowed a little, and one morning where the wind was still, the sun shining bright and it really felt like spring (minus the budding plants).

We are under the ozone hole, and despite being at sea-level I burn in minutes without sunscreen.  I have even burnt inside our radome (as have some co-workers), which leads us to the conclusion that the membrane is transparent to UV.

Christmas and a shocking discovery
Christmas decorations are going up and people are getting in the holiday spirit.  However, I have made a shocking discovery:  South Pole Elves are evil.  Yes, they are stuffing Santa into a trash can.  The reindeer looked kind of mean too.

South Pole Elves -- not the nice kind
One of the big events for Christmas here was the Women’s Soiree which took place Saturday. This started out in the 90’s as a social event for the station’s few women who wanted to dress up and enjoy some wine and for some years men on station thought it was a women-only event despite open invitations (this is from the official history). Now the station population is about 60/40 men to women, with every job integrated, but the tradition of having women-only acts has continued.

It was described to me as talent show, but turned out to be a bit more involved, lasting over 3 hours with several exceptionally talented performers and nothing at all that was Gong-Show worthy (which is what I expected). The finale was a choreographed dance-off between the shuttle drivers and the Wasted Wrecked Jan-Hos (A team comprised of dancers from waste, recreation and janitorial).

Stage set up in galley

There also decorations on the streets and in the Galley, and even my door--my roommate is a regular down here and some of his friends did a drive-by decorating of our door.  Best of all, everyone gets two days off next week (yay!).

Long Duration Balloons
Another highlight was observing a long-duration balloon launch.  Nine miles out on the ice they have facility that launches very large balloons with a variety of instruments which ascend to high altitude and are carried around the pole by the prevailing winds which rotate around the pole in a very stable pattern during the summer.  Some of these balloons can remain aloft in excess of 90 days, and some carry huge instruments.  One I saw a lecture on carried a 2m optical telescope which has resolution rivaling space-based telescopes, at a fraction the cost.  From our work site we were able to watch it ascend throughout the day.

Unfortunately my camera lacked the zoom to really show much detail.  For a good part of the day it looked like a jellyfish undulating across the sky.

Stay warm northerners

Friday, December 17, 2010

McMurdo -- Week 1 Pix

For those of you not on facebook, here are some random photos:

Ice Runway at midnight
The ice has many different looks throughout the day. The sun never sets, so we get to see all sorts of conditions and lighting. Hiking at midnight, the glare off the ice was amazingly bright, the picture hardly does it justice. This runway is where I landed, about a mile out on the ice.  The ice is thinning and melting, so this runway has now been closed.

Seal on Ice
Several seals hanging out near Hut Point. The ice around it is part of the seasonal ice, it will be clear water by the end of January and we are likely to see penguins and sometimes whales here.  This is the same ice they built the runway on.  Kudos to the crew who groom it.

Ivan the Terrabus, an iconic ice vehicle which drives a lot of people in from the airfield.

The taxi fleet - -heavy duty 4WD vans.  We work outside town, so we ride these often.

When you miss the taxi, you walk.  Trekked from our second site to the NASA antenna after a mix-up with our ride.  The building is locked, but there is a warming shelter in one of the milvans (steel containers), which happens to have a phone, so we called for a ride.

More later....

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where to hang out in Mac Town

Three Interesting Things About McMurdo:

1. It is a local call from McMurdo to Denver, Colorado. All other calls are…long distance.

2. McMurdo Station (Mac Town) has a 6 day work week. Sunday is the weekend, which includes a banquet of fresh food during the 4 hour brunch, parties, field trips, and a fair amount of cutting loose.

3. Expeditions and Antarctic bases used dogs as late as the 1980s. However, it is now against the Antarctic Treaty to bring non-indigenous species to Antarctica. So, I do not get to have a sled-dog team (how sad).

Yes, it is a troll.  Yes, it is under a bridge.

Where to hang out in Mac Town

Long hours are the norm down here (at least in the summer) as there are only a few months to get everything done before the cold comes back and the planes stop flying. But there are also a lot of opportunities for recreation, including movies, three gyms, two libraries and three bars as well as 6-8 social events scheduled each day.

My favorite haunt is the Coffee House. One of the three bars, it is a coffee house in name only since wine and port are the most served drinks. However, it has an espresso machine, so coffee can be had though most of the locals take it with a shot of whiskey. Still, it is a nice place to kick back. It has internet connections (a commodity here), warm drinks, and it is contained in a windowless Quonset hut originally built in the 50’s. Windowless is important as the sun never sets this time of year, and a windowless building gives the illusion of night--very important for maintaining a normal sleep pattern.

I also like the décor -- while much of the station feels and looks like a very dirty college campus, inside the Coffee House with its elegant wood paneling and arctic décor, it really feels like Antarctica. Compare to the galley (bottom photo) which could be just about anywhere.

Coffee House

The other thing I like is that the Coffee House has the best theater in town. With an HD screen, BIG speakers and the lights out, it looks and feels like you are in a theater, and those couches are amazingly comfortable.

Coffee House Theater

By comparison, here is the galley. Now tell me, where would you rather hang out?

McMurdo Galley

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sunday in McMurdo

It is my first Sunday in McMurdo and I am starting feel ‘in the swing of things.’ The pace of life here is interesting, very different from what most people are used to. Breakfast is 5:30 to 7:30. The typical workday is 7:30 to 6 with a lunch break somewhere in the middle. Bars open at 7pm and are usually packed. Day people tend to go to bed early, but there is a nightshift (Midrats -- so called because the cafeteria opens to feed them Midnight Rations). Walking through the dorms, “Day Sleeper” signs are common, reminding people not to wake the second shift (and raising the question of vampires). People work Mon-Sat, and take Sunday off. Saturday night is the big party night, with wine bottles at dinner and long lines to buy booze at the store.

The lifestyle is taking some getting used to. Though it is one of the most isolated places on Earth, the camp is CROWDED. Every public place has people in it at every hour of the day. Everyone has at least one roommate, some people have five. Public computers and internet ports often have waits, and sometimes the only privacy is to go back to the office after dinner.

McMurdo Station and Ice Runway

Our work is split between an office area (typical office), the T-Site where our first antenna was built, and an operations center in town where our back-end electronics are housed. The T-Site is on a hill overlooking the town and has spectacular views of Mt. Erebus, the Ross Ice Shelf, and the Royal Academy Range.

The Office

The biggest event of the week was moving flight operations from the Ice Runway to Pegasus. This involved about 24 hours of convoys moving buildings and equipment across ~8 miles of sea ice, including the air-traffic control tower. Apparently the road was so chewed up that one of the Deltas (see picture) got stuck and took several hours to extract.  The driver told us it was the "worst road trip ever -- 10 hours in a delta and I ended up exactly where I started."  I also heard from some mechanics that they burned out the transmissions in several vehicles trying to get everything moved in time for the next flight. The road is ice and packed snow, groomed much like a ski slope.  Several days of unusually high temperatures (we’ve had a few days in the high 30’s and low 40’s) contributed to the bad roads, which hold up better when it stays well below freezing.  The Pegasus runway is also on the ice, however it is on the permanent ice shelf (well, permanent so far...) so they can use it through the summer.
Delta on the Ice Runway

Three Interesting Things

  1. The waste processing center is in an area called sausage point. Minds out of gutters people. Apparently garbage was buried here in the 50’s and 60’s, and one season there was a vast amount of sausage left over, which was buried. When expanding a building, they dug into this lovely cache of 40 year-old sausage (permafrost--so things do not decay here). This delicious discovery a rather stinky clean-up earned the name Sausage Point.
  2. A skua is a 2’ long bird (about the size of a penguin) which will aggressively try to steal your food as you cross between buildings. Imagine a 20 pound pigeon with a beak as long as your finger that will NOT back down from a fight.
  3. There are several recreational hikes around the camp. For longer ones you must travel in groups, must carry a radio, must check out at the firehouse and if you don’t check back in on time they begin search and rescue in the 1st 5 minutes you are overdue. At least 3 people have died on these leisure hikes over the last several years, most by going off the marked trail and falling into unmarked crevasses. I can’t imagine the last hours of those they ‘almost’ saved.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I am in Antarctica!!!!!!!!!

We’ll see if I can get into a regular blogging schedule, but for now here is quick summary:
I am in Antarctica!!!!!!!!!

We are 20 hours ahead of MST -- so for me it is the next day, but four hours behind. (GMT +12 for those of you who are counting).
Arrived in New Zealand on December 1st. Remained there until December 6th poking around Christchurch and waiting for the weather to clear so that flights South could resume. Arrived at McMurdo Station on December 6th. Went right to work, touring the sites and helping with tests. Didn’t get to unpack until about 9pm.
Having a busy week and adjusting to the environment, culture, work pace, food, etc.
Sharing a room with a friendly janitor from Wyoming. This is somewhat lucky as one of our team members who arrived in October is stuck in a 5-person ‘temporary’ room. But not that lucky as another colleague has had a double all to himself since the day he landed.
Have only showered twice since arriving.
Have been too hot or too cold much of the time, though I am starting to get used to it (and I’m learning when to wear what).
Spent one day working on a ridge with no shelter, 40 mph winds, and temperatures around -4 C with a wind chill somewhere around -19. It was cold, but Big Red (the program issued extreme cold weather parka) kept me comfortable so long as I had my back to the wind.
Spent another day mostly in the office (boo!).
Today’s highlight: took a midnight hike -- since it is 24/7 daytime and tonight was clear-skies with almost no wind, I took late night hike out to Hut Point (a short hike). Saw a couple seals, watched a C-130 take off and looked over the original hut Scott built here in 1902. It is a protected historic site so we cannot go in or tamper with it. The oddest oddity there is a bundle of old ropes and canvas topped by the desiccated corpse of seal. I have no idea what the story of this detritus heap might be, but there is a chance it is from the original expedition (a 100 year old seal carcass -- yay).
3 interesting things:
  1. Up until 1972, the station’s power came from a 50’s era nuclear power plant. It was removed in the early 70’s due to a requirement in the Antarctic treaty that allows any signatory to inspect equipment on the continent. Not wanting to share proliferation technology, they removed it.
  2. Water + volcanic fines + cold = concrete. Watched an excavator trying to trench through fines (loose volcanic rock). It was making good progress when it hit a patch where water had penetrated forming ice-crete. The excavator only managed to chip away a couple inches over the course of an hour. He finally gave up -- they will need heavier equipment to break through the ice layer.
  3. Burger night -- it’s a big deal here. People line up 30-40 minutes early, standing outside (freezing) to get their $3 burger at Gallagher’s Bar.