nechnif.net

A year at South Pole - 2017/18

In May 2017, I accepted a job offer at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) in Madison - a job that will send me to the bottom of Earth. IceCube is a giant Neutrino detector at South Pole, and it will be my job to keep its computers running. For an entire year (November 2017 to December 2018) I will live and work at the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.
Being an IceCube "Winterover" has been my dream job for years - und now the dream is real. This page is my journal of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Most of the content will be in English, but I will also drop some stuff in German occasionally. The journal entries are sorted by date (latest first).

[Go to first journal entry]

[Ice facts only]
[Science facts only]

nechnif
Map of Antarctica
Map of Antarctica [Polar Geospacial Center]
  • South Pole's Micro-Wildlife
  • [prev] [next] [top]
  • Sol 96   04. February 2018

You thought South Pole was a place most hostile to life in every way? Not at all! After all those McMurdo wildlife pictures I showed you earlier last month, I think it's time now to present what Pole has to offer. Because if you look hard enough, you find all kinds of fauna lurking and creeping in and around South Pole Station. This journal entry is dedicated to the creatures that only those with a keen eye can see.

Admittedly, most of the animals found here are most likely not native to South Pole. Allan the sock monkey, for example, is believed to live a nomadic live with the Traverse people. Legend says that the sturgeon in the ice tunnels is originally from Russia, and the creepy monkey in the office obviously crashed is UFO at South Pole at some point. The T-Rex magically showed up this very season, and nobody knows who is behind his sudden appearance (chrmchrrm, Zane).
There also is one species that visits South Pole quite frequently, and in contrast to all the other creatures, you don't have to try hard to find it - in fact, sometimes it's really difficult NOT to run into at least one specimen of this kind on your way from the lab to the bathroom: Tourists. They come back every summer season when it apparently gets so hot in the Northern Hemisphere, that it's worth about 75 grant to breath ice-cold South Pole air for literally one day. Anyways, occasionally you get to meet a famous person in Amundsen-Scott's hallways (because those are usually the ones with that kind of money).

The story behind the sturgeon in the ice tunnels has as many versions as there are people telling it, and every single one of them is probably true. So far, I think this is what happened:
A long, long time ago, the Russian station Vostok located at about 72 ° South on the Antarctic Plateau, presented the sturgeon to McMurdo station as a gift. The McTownies, suspicious as they are, did not dare to eat it - so it ended up in one of their cold storage buildings were it slept for years and years. But then, one lucky day, a McMurdo supply worker found it and thought it was funny to guard-mail it down to South Pole station in one of the last aircrafts of the season, so that the Polies would not have a chance to send it back. After all those years the poor fish did not meet the galley safety standards any more, so that season's winterovers decided to honor it's endurances with the highest (or lowest) of all graves: A shrine in the ice tunnels.

  • Hello WWU Münster!
  • [prev] [next] [top]
  • Sol 92   31. January 2018

I want to dedicate this week's journal entry to my IceCube team at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität (WWU) in Münster, who helped me so much in fulfilling my dream of going to the South Pole. You guys rock!

Before I came here, I worked on the mDOM, the Multi-PMT Digital Optical Module for the future IceCube-Gen2 experiment, together with the guys from AG Kappes which was newly founded in 2016 and soon developed to be the best work group in the world! Those guys made me the most awesome going-away gift: A calendar with a page for every month I'll be here, each holding a picture of them re-enacting a funny scene from all my favorite movies. Maybe I'll share some of those with you over the next months! :D

  • Ice facts #8     Skua

skuˑa /'skyo͡oə/, noun: A large brownish predatory seabird related to the gulls, pursuing other birds to make them disgorge fish they have caught.
[Google Dictionary]

Also:

skuˑa /'skyo͡oə/, noun: An abstract phenomenon describing the donation and repossession of everyday items predominantly on research stations in Antarctica; as well as the site of its implementation. [Poptart's Dictionary of Amusing and Inappropriate American Colloquial]

Or, let me put this differently: If you have stuff you don't want anymore or you have to get rid of excess luggage for your way home, you put it in Skua. Be it an old towel, an open box of Ibuprofen, smelly sportswear or that tacky multicolored chain of Christmas lights that someone installed in your room before you moved in - Skua takes it all. At Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Skua is a little shack right outside the side entrance, where people put their old stuff for happy finders to take. And this system works - it works so extraordinarily good, that some bold summer people come down here without any extra clothes of their own, with Skua as their wardrobe for the entire stay.

Skua got its name from the famous Antarctic seabird, which is known for its tendency to 'borrow' food from other animals or unsuspecting residents of McMurdo Station who dare to step outside with a tray full of pizza and Frosty Boy.

I went on a 7-day vacation to McMurdo! Nothing to report, all I did was hanging out in our dorm eating pizza for a week. Also the occasional shower-beer.

	The girl who dances with pizza
The girl who dances with pizza

... Just kidding! :D

Although I have done the above things in a certainly unhealthy extent, I did go on a bunch of awesome adventures with my South Pole friends Luis, Tony, Ta-Lee and Cherisa; of which I want to narrate in this week's journal entry.
R&R stands for Rest and Recuperation and is basically a little beach vacation at the coast of Antarctica granted to everybody who winters at South Pole, as their last chance to see something else than the sterile interiour of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and the big white nothingness it sits in. The destination of choice (or not-choice) is McMurdo Station - if you were following my blog for a while, you know I've already spend a couple of days there since it's the transit harbour for everybody on their way to Pole.

McMurdo Station in the summer time has everything you can possibly wish for when you just spent over 2 months at South Pole: A set of equally crazy, but different faces, a sea-level air pressure so you can actually hike without passing out, humidity, fauna, 24/7 pizza, and HUMIDITY. Also your face doesn't hurt when you go outside; the temperatures sometimes reach to a few degrees above freezing here! If you compare the above picture to the one I took in October, you can see that most of the snow in town has made way for a brownish-red combination of dirt and volcano ashes. How refreshing!

Speaking of fauna: There are actual living animals at the coast of Antarctica; and I am not talking about that poor little moth they once found in a box of broccoli. See the photos below for the all the species we encountered! :)
You might think penguins are a natural thing to be around in Antarctica, but at this time of year, when the sea ice is not completely broken up yet, you actually have to be pretty lucky to see them! So I am particularly proud of the picture on the right: Ta-Lee and I spotted 10 Adelie penguins on the sea ice in Winter Quarters Bay that wandered off pretty soon after we arrived, to mess with the seals you can see chillin' on their lazy butts in the background. For all the winterovers who did not get to see them: Don't be too sad; when penguins walk around on land, they are pretty much just drunk human adults, of which you can find one or two in McMurdo without having to go out to the ice shelf.

Visiting McMurdo is not only worth it for stalking wildlife, though. You can go on plenty of beautfiul hikes in the area - because in contrast to the plain white oblivion of South Pole, the coast has some actual landscape going on. Together with my R&R crew and fellow IceCuber Matt, I ventured to climb the famous mesa of Castle Rock - quite an advanced hike, but the view from up there is so breathtakingly beautiful, it makes you forget that you are sweating and freezing at the same time. Almost six hours full of amazing sceneries (some of which part of some serious bonding experiences) we spent hiking the icy wilderness of Ross Island; quietly shadowed by the magestic Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth.

Wait what? Active volcano?? ... Calm down. Erebus has an open lava lake at its top, which means enough pressure in form of little eruptions is released every now and then to prevent a massive eruption of enough power to wipe out Winter Quarters Bay. So no need to evacuate McMurdo Station any time soon. ;)

McMurdo is a crowded place: Almost 800 people at this time of year (in contrast to about 150 at Pole)! Most of them live in two- or four-bed dorm rooms, which makes it feel a little bit like a school trip (thanks Cherisa for being such an awesome room mate!). Although that's a little scary at first, a big population comes with conveniences like a barber shop, a coffee house, bars, a variety of community activities, even a radio station! R&R people from South Pole seem to be a big hit in McMurdo - we got shout-outs on IceRadio at least four times! DJ Dennis, if you read this: You're awesome! :D
If you want to get away from the crowd, Hut Point right outside of town is the spot of choice. Not only does it feature a great view over Winter Quarters Bay, it's also home of Scott's Hut: An exact replica of the shelter that was built for Scott's expedition over a 100 years ago. Most of the exhibits in there are originals!

The ice breaker arrived in McMurdo this week. Very soon, the sea ice will be broken up completely, the bay will be alive with all kinds of sea animals, and the big cargo vessel will dock in McMurdo - the busiest time of the season. I will not be there to witness this; by the time hell breaks loose in McTown, I will be snuggled up in my own cozy, tiny set of walls, at the place I call home now - South Pole.

There is a lot of exciting things going on at South Pole, I learn new things and make new friends every single day. But today, something so breathtakingly beautiful happened that reminded me why I really wanted to come down here in the first place: To watch the sky.
Today I got to be the proud witness of a display that reveals itself only once, maybe twice a year, and only at a handful of the coldest of all places around the world.

What you can see in the photos (that I took with my new wide-angle lens that came in with the mail after Christmas) is a combination of rare atmospheric halos, produced by ice crystals in Earth's upper atmosphere that reflect the sunlight in a very special way. Let's dig into this a little bit with the help of a book I found in the meteorology department; Atmospheric Halos by Walter Tape. The most basic sundogs - or parhelia - are formed by plate crystals as shown in the figure above. Although the crystals have very different orientations, the refracted rays of light behind them are nearly parallel, so that we see a concentration of light in the opposite direction. The more fancy halos are formed in a similar way by differently shaped crystals. The photos I took show two parhelia, a 22 ° and 46 ° halo, the upper tangent arc, the supralateral and circumzenith arcs, infralateral arcs and my favorite, the parthelic circle, which at one point during the show went aaaaall the way around the sky.
Crucial for this kind of display is the number and size of the ice crystals, their orientation and alignment, and the density of the crystal cloud. All these factors have to work together perfectly - that's why these halos are so incredibly rare!

In order to take decent photographs of such solar phenomenons, you need to block off the sun itself - otherwise its brightness would overshine everything else. In my case, I used human sunblocks which turned out to work pretty well ;).

Information and drawings taken from:

[1] Walter Tape: Atmospheric Halos, American Geophysical Union, Washington D.C., 1994.


If you know me, you know my love for science and the joy I find in explaining things (which I tried above). And I don't think science diminishes the beauty of the moment at all - but this day again reminded me to take off science's safety goggles every once in a while, and to just sit there unspoiled, watch, and humbly appreciate the rare moments mother nature shares such gems with her children.

The turn of the year is kinda arbitrary here, since all time zones of Earth come together at South Pole. Nonetheless, since Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station runs on New Zealand time, we celebrate New Year's Eve at UTC +13. Yes, we are a day ahead of most of you guys!

New Year's Eve party was held in the big gym. No need to go outside, since we are not allowed to burn any fireworks (which would probably not be very impressive in bright sunlight anyway). You think New Year's is boring without burning or melting stuff? Not at all! Two very special guests made an appearance that totally made up for not being able to play with flammables. One is the ancient, all-knowing Trotterdamus, who would tell you your 2018 fortune at almost no cost (but your soul, dohh). The other is the mysterious inflatable T-Rex, who makes unpredictable appearances every once in a while - no one knows when and where it will happen, and no one knows who he is in the real world. Some things are just meant to remain a mystery forever.

South Pole Station is built on a gigantic glacier, which sloooowy makes its way towards the coast of Antarctica - about a couple of meters every year. That means it is moving away from the geographic South Pole inch by inch. As demanded by yearlong tradition, the geographic South Pole marker is relocated to it's new position relative to the station every January 1st. This is done in a big ceremony to which everybody is invited - not only station population, but everyone on site; including tourists camping out in the nearby tourist camp.
The marker is not only moved, but also replaced by a new design every year. Martin Wolf, one of last season's IceCube winterovers, came up with this year's design, and it's pretty awesome!

  • Ice facts #8     South Pole markers

There are two South Pole markers near Amundsen Scott South Pole Station. One is the ceremonial Pole marker, which moves along with the glacier and therefore remains at it's place relative to the station at all times. It is surrounded by 12 flags representing the founding members of the Antarctic Treaty: South Africa, Belgium, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, the USA, Norway, New Zealand, Russia, Chile, Australia, and Argentina. Since it is the sexier of the two Pole markers, it is more commonly seen in pictures.
The other marker, as you've probably correctly guessed, is the geographic South Pole marker, which marks the actual geographic South Pole. Since the glacier moves away beneath it, its position has to be re-calculated every year. The marker is replaced by a new design and moved to its new location every January 1st in a big ceremony. The old marker goes into a little marker museum here on station, where it remains for all future generations of Polies to see. Usually, all winterovers sign their season's marker, so that their names remain a part of South Pole forever.

Both markers used to be right next to each other; but due to the constant moving of the ice cap, their current distance is about a 100 m.

"Attention South Pole Station, attention South Pole Station!
This is Comms wishing everybody a Merry Christmas!"

Yes, it's Christmas at South Pole! I can't believe I have been here for 55 days now - the weeks go by so fast when you are having the time of your life. Here's a little bit on how to celebrate the southernmost Christmas in the world:
First of all, a white Christmas is not a thing to be worried about here. Also I can say with at least 100% certainty that Easter, Halloween and my birthday will be white, too! On the other hand, we are missing a bunch of other christmassy things here; like candles (fire hazard), open fire places (guess what hazard), real Christmas trees (contamination hazard), and a relaxed attitude towards eating raw cookie dough (after being publicly shamed for cross-contaminating the gluten-free cookie dough with the dairy-free ginger bread cookie cutter, they made me stand in the corner where I had nothing else to do but snitching dough, so they eventually kicked me out of the galley. Pff). However, the one thing everybody, including myself, is missing the most around this time of year is their families and loved ones. I love you Mom & Dad (I promise to watch "Little Lord Fauntleroy" while getting drunk on Glüwein on the sofa like we always do :))!

South Pole population has it's own little old and new traditions, though. Besides an A-MAZ-ING Christmas Eve dinner, we sang carols in Comms with McMurdo station, Shackleton field camp and WAIS Divide field camp over radio. We even had a little handmade-Secret-Santa ("Wichteln" for my German-speaking friends) going on! The ARFF (Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting) guys organised a little afternoon-Christmas party for us on the 23th (pardon me, 23rd), and we had another one in the gym on the 24th.
In the middle of the night before Christmas, someone had the glorious idea to transform the big pile of snowdrift behind the station into a gigantic sledding slope. It was actually a lot steeper than it looks on the pictures; it's a Christmas miracle that nobody NPQ'd (aka physically disqualified themselves from the program) that night...

Another highlight of Christmas celebrations at South Pole is the "Race around the World": 2.27 miles across all time zones of Earth, be it on foot, with skies, in a handcrafted cardboard sled, in a pink bunny costume on a unicycle or on top the party-barge towed by a bulldozer - everybody can participate. Only the runners are competing though; and the price for the fastest male and female finisher were 10 extra shower minutes to use at their convenience (not necessarily together)! Stupidest Christmas present ever, you think? Well, if you live at a place where you're allowed to take two two-minute showers per week only (to save water and energy), shower minutes pretty quickly develop to be the new inofficial currency, which can be traded for all kinds of candy on the South Pole black market. And now guess who won the race as South Pole's fastest woman? :)

With this in mind, I wish all of you a jolly little holiday time. For my friends and family at home: I've never missed you more than now at the Christmas holidays; reminding me of the coziness and comfort of your company. But know that I have found a new makeshift little family here at South Pole, consisting of wonderful and amazing people I can count on at all times, and who are there for me whenever I get homesick. I love you guys! Merry Christmas.

PS: So far I have charged my cellphone twice since I got here. TWICE. No kidding.

  • Ice facts #7     South Pole weather

Gather 'round folks, it's time to talk about the weather. Well, actually there's not much to say except that it's cold as f*ck. Anyway, here we differentiate between two different kinds of cold-as-f*ck: The actual temperature and the windchill. The first one tells the temperature as it is taken by the outside thermometers; the latter tells you how it actually feels like when you go outside and stand in the wind. Those two can have veeeery different values sometimes! In summer, the (actual) temperature does not climb higher than -20 °C, in winter; it can fall down to almost -80 °C!
The daily weather board, one of which you can see below, also tells you the current "experienced" altitude calculated from the air pressure. This sometimes goes up to 10,800 ft, compared to the "actual" 9,301 ft. And believe me, you can really feel the difference when working out in the gym and the extra air you need is JUST NOT THERE. Phew.

The humidity at South Pole is absolute 0 - always, everywhere. Except in the greenhouse and sometimes the sauna, which makes these rooms very frequently visited places on station. Some people, including me, have their own humidifiers in their rooms, but due to the constantly running air conditioning they don't work really well except when you seal your vents shut (which you are very much not supposed to) or let the humidifier blow directly in your face when you're asleep. It sometimes helps to air-dry your laundry on the clothesline in your room - it will drip dry in notime and adds a little bit of water to the air for at least a few hours.

Man, am I glad I brought my big bear mittens with me! With one hand I am shielding my face from the ice cold wind, with the other I try to keep the camera warm that is sitting in it's case on my lab. The snowmobile is speeding with 30 miles an hour through the icy desert that lies beyond the perimeter of South Pole Station. The ARA (Askaryan Radio Array) drill camp is out here - and that is where I am going today.

It is a long snowmobile ride, almost 25 minutes - especially when the wind is blowing like it is today. I can see the camp in the distance, although I can barely make out a couple of rectangular shapes that are reflecting the sunlight near the horizon. The way to the camp is marked by green flags every 50 meters; I am watching them fly by one by one as I am pushing my snowmobile to its limits. It's a ton of fun, but the faster you go, the more unforgiving is the airstream that painfully reminds you of every single exposed millimeter of your skin.

Having reached the camp around 9 in the morning, I am welcomed by the drillers who already have been out here for hours. I am just in time to witness the genesis of a new ARA hole - the hot-water drill head is ready to carve it's way 200 meters deep into the Antarctic ice cap.
I am not here to help with drilling though, but with deploying the first ARA string at this drill site, which is also super interesting - and most of all warm, because they set up a little shack around the hole that has already been completed earlier this week. The little hut is pretty packed with us six people, and I am trying my very best not to stand in the way and being as ingenious as possible. It's a big honor for me to be here - Since I wasn't there for IceCube drilling back in the construction days, the ARA people were so nice to let me come out here today to have a look and help out a little.
Very slowly the ARA string is lowered into the icy darkness beneath our feet. Four very sensitive radio antennas are about to be buried forever - together with one or two sharpies that someone might have accidentally dropped into the hole. Totally not my fault.

Lucky as I am, ARA is not the only super-exciting thing I got to witness today. In the pictures above you can see the awesome cloud formation I spotted on my way back to station. It almost looks like snow is falling at South Pole! I showed these pictures to the meteorology department - according to them, snow showers are not supposed to happen here ever, but they could not come up with a better explanation for the phenomenon. A Christmas miracle!

  • Science facts #3     Askaryan Radio Array (ARA)

The Askaryan Radio Arrary ... pardon me, the Askaryan Radio ARRAY is a sister project of IceCube. Like the Cube, it is also looking for high energy Neutrinos, but instead of optical sensors it utilizes radio antennas to detect our favorite particles. The measurement principle of ARA is based upon the Askaryan effect, which describes the generation of charge anisotropies in bulk media (such as ice) caused by high-energy neutrino induced particle cascades. The anisotropy emits coherent radio waves which can be detected by the ARA antennas.

At the end of this summer season, the experiment will consist of six stations with four holes each, where every hole is holding 4 antennas. Once completed, ARA will cover an area far bigger than IceCube, although with a far smaller detector density. It's neutrino detection sweetspot is at energies even higher than IceCube's, which makes it an important addition to the South Pole Neutrino Club.

Sometimes even I need a break from everything, so today I ventured out to the berms - a huge, mysterious area near station where all the forgotten and lost things of Antarctica end up. It stretches out for miles - and it's the only place at South Pole where you can ever truly be alone.

If you take a close enough look, you find all kinds of interesting items out here, most of them half or completely buried beneath the snow. And if you're not careful, you will find yourself in one of the many crevasses that open up between pieces of furniture, cable spools, Christmas trees and scrap metal, and you will eventually become a forgotten piece of South Pole history as well.
Luckily, this tragic fate passed me by, so I could continue my lone Sunday afternoon roam through this peaceful, yet nostalgic little world of its own. Whenever things trouble me or I am feeling sad, I come out here to regain perspective. It reminds me where I am: South Pole, the bottom of the world.

A lot of people that follow my blog requested images of station interior - and I take fan mail very seriously! So today's journal entry is about one of the most important places inside Amundsen-Scott South Pole station: The power plant.

Normally, people are not allowed in the power plant unless they are staff or have some serious business to do there - and my business is pretty serious! As a member of South Pole Station fire brigade, I need to know every last corner of the station in my sleep, especially the power plant as a fire-hazardous area. So Rob, our fire brigade team lead, gave us a tour:
South Pole Station entirely depends on jet fuel which is brought here by plane and the South Pole Traverses. Below you can see the "fuel bladders" that are towed all the way from McMurdo to South Pole on a sled! At Pole, the fuel is stored in gigantic cylinders in the fuel arch, and converted into power and heat by four bigass yellow engines. Those are supposed not to catch on fire - but IF shit would hit the fan, there is an emergency power plant on the other side of the station, which could keep the winterovers alive for the rest of the year. Let's hope that won't be necessary...

Speaking of fuel: Since last week, I am a proud member of the winterover fuelie team! Together with Rob, who is also one of our research associates (RAs) besides fire team lead, and Justin, our facilities engineer, I am responsible for fueling the last plane that leaves Pole (because the summer fuelies will be on it), and the first plane that gets here next year. The job also includes testing our fuel for sediments and water; it might get used to refuel some of the aircrafts during the summer. The most awesome part of the job though: Marshalling the last Herc. Isn't that exciting?! I've been studying marshalling signs all month! :)

  • Ice facts #6     The South Pole Traverse

Imagine a caravane in a desert - but instead of camels, you've got heavy bigass bulldozers; instead of tents, you've got containers on gigantic sleds; and instead of sand, you've got ice as far as the eyes can see. That's the South Pole Traverse.
Three times a summer season, 10 intrepid heroes go on this incredible journey, towing fuel bladders all the way from McMurdo to South Pole to provide the station with liquid power for the winter.

There obviously is no paved road to Pole - so the Traverse has to make its way through more than 1600 km of ice and snow. The first vehicle in the caravane carries a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to detect the many crevasses in the glacier, which can be fatal to mission and life.

The journey of the Traverse takes about three weeks with 12 hours of driving every day. Our 10 heroes have to spent their leisure time in very close quarters: There is a cargo-container sized module for sleeping, and another one that servers as kitchen and bathroom.

Beep beep! ... Beep beep! ... Beep BEEP!

Okay okay, I'm up! What is it now? Does baby need a diaper change? In fact it does, except that the baby is IceCube, and the diaper is some part of its system that misbehaves. And if IceCube becomes very unhappy, it wakes up one of its winterovers over the radio to get some attention. And tonight is my turn.
At a place that has brightest sunlight 24 hours a day, it's sometimes hard to tell the time by peaking through a window. But you can tell by the people you meet in the hallways. At night, the normally very busy station is fairly quiet, and the only people I run into are our breakfast chef Denise, and Josh, one of our satellite engineers, who is getting his first coffee of the work day.
Having reached the B2 lab, I can quickly identify tonight's problem as a crash of the Data Processing and Filtering (PnF) system. This happens quite frequently, so I know exactly what to do. Nonetheless, I sit by my computer for a while to wait till baby IceCube calms down slowly.

Yes, that's right - As an IceCube winterover, you work whenever IceCube needs you, be it in the middle of the night or in the middle of your bi-weekly two-minute shower. Johannes and I work in alternating 7-day shifts, in which we have to pay very close attention to our radios in case IceCube gives us an emergency call.

Even though my ongoing shift has been extremely page-intensive so far, I am still having a blast at South Pole - especially now that I have officially celebrated my first Thanksgiving ever! I learned that nowadays, this American holiday is mostly about food, of which I had plenty - and vegetarian turkey really can be super tasty! The galley staff does an absolutely amazing job to keep us all happy.

A not-so-busy week at South Pole!
It's my third week here, and we already set a new absolute record-low of air crafts arriving. We only had four planes so far, all of them in my first week - basically every department on station is behind schedule now, either waiting for people or cargo or both to finally arrive at Pole. There is a ton of summer workers sitting in McMurdo who already hit their RETURN date from Pole without having been able to even get here.

On Sunday, we finally got an aircraft coming in - unfortunately one that wasn't going to land here. The conditions only allowed for the annual air drop, which means a big C-17, or Globemaster, approaching station, circling above for a couple of times, then dropping some cargo near station site, and returns to Christchurch, leaving behind a hand full of crying still-on-station 2017 winterovers - or leftovers, how they are nowadays called - who desperately want to get out of here.

Since work for most departments here is basically frozen (chrchr) until cargo arrives, the station population killed their time with allerlei Unfug; e.g. sliding down the snow drifts on kitchen equipment (see picture below) or telling comforting lies about the weather situation to the leftovers.

After another week of anxiously watching the weather forecasts and listening to Comms announcements about flight updates, we finally, FINALLY got a Hercules coming in today, which was a big relief for almost everybody on station, especially the leftovers. I am a little sad they're leaving though, I really got to like them despite their tetchyness about being stuck here. But I guess I have to accept the sad truth that everybody has to leave South Pole at some point. ;)
My boss Ralf also arrived on the Hercules, which means we finally can get started on IceCube summer upgrades!

  • Ice facts #5     South Pole air crafts

South Pole aviation is a particularly tricky business. A mission's success depends on many different factors - mostly weather, which is pretty much unpredictable in McMurdo, at Pole and in between. For a plane to fly, the weather has to be just perfect. It can changes within minutes though, and it happens quite frequently that planes take off in McMurdo, fly all the way Pole just to discover that the weather has changed so severely that they aren't able to land safely, and fly all the way back. This is called "boomeranging".

There are four planes to fly missions to Pole: Most cargo and people come in on a LC-130 or Hercules, the biggest ski-equipped air craft to land here. Backup missions are flown in the much smaller Baslers. Their cabin is not pressurized, so they have to fly very low, which means you get a beautiful view of Antarctica! The tiniest planes to fly to Pole are the Twinotters. Tourists or important people often arrive in those. Their engines are small enough to be heated up externally, so they can actually be parked at Pole for several days - in contrast to the Hercules machines, whose engines have to run the whole time they're here. The by far biggest Antarctic air crafts are the C-17s or Globemasters. Those are not equipped with skies and are way too heavy to land on the snowy South Pole ski way, so they are used to get people from Christchurch to McMurdo's Phoenix air field, which is located on the ice shelf and can carry more load, until it melts in the summer. The annual South Pole air drop is also flown by these gigantic machines, because it does not require landing.

Fun fact: For each of the South Pole air crafts, there is a server with the same name in ICL! Globemaster takes care of syslog and serves as an NSF mount, hercules hosts the IceCube wiki and SVN, basler is our backup server and twinotter is home of our monitoring system.

  • Of weather balloons and toasty winterovers
  • [prev] [next] [top]
  • Sol 14   14. November 2017

"Attention South Pole Station, attention South Pole Station!"

My well-deserved sleep is being ended abruptly by the announcement over the radio.

"Flight SK-21 from McMurdo is canceled. I repeat: Flight SK-21 from McMurdo is CANCELED."

Listening closely, I can hear a mumbled expression of disappointment rolling through South Pole Station. The radio all-call that just woke me up is not unfamiliar at all: It means that today's flight from McMurdo to South Pole Station is canceled again - like all the flights in the last week. It also means that no cargo and no new summer workers are coming in today, and, most importantly, no winterovers of last season can get out. There is still a handfull of them on station, and being delayed over and over again has made them a little tetchy. Most of them are missing out on their well-deserved vacations, others are just understandably fed up with being stuck here.
I may or may not be in their situation in a year from now; but so far, every day here is another day in paradise for me!

My IceCube driver seat duties still leave me enough time to explore the station and see what everybody else is doing. This week's mission: Annoy the weather people! The meteorology department is in the B2 lab, right next to my own workplace. So from time to time I go over there, visit my new friends JJ and Janelle to see what they're up to. If you get on their nerves long enough, they let you launch one of their weather balloons (see picture to the right)! :)

  • Science facts #2     IceTop Snow Measurements

If you paid attention in my IceCube facts #1, you might have noticed that IceCube does not only have in-ice optical sensors to measure the neutrinos, but also features some modules right beneath the surface - these are called IceTop stations. Each of the 86 strings that are deployed in the ice has one of them on top. All together, the IceTop stations are used to measure lower-energy neutrinos, and they also serve as a veto-mechanism for the in-ice DOMs.
The problem with stuff that is set up at the surface of South Pole ice plateau: It does not stay at the surface for very long. Things are being burried in snow drift faster than you can say "penguin". Since the amount of snow that covers IceTop has an affect on the measurements, every once in a while the IceCube winterovers have to go out and estimate the snow level on every single IceTop station. This can be a long and cold adventure, depending on the windchill and how many people can be motivated to help. Fortunately, the old winterovers Martin and James were still here (they belong to the handfull of toasty people who are still waiting for a plane to take them back to the real world) to help Johannes and me, so it took us only two afternoons.

ICL, the IceCube Lab, is located about a kilometer North from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station - which is quite a walk, considering you have to wear your whole ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear, you are walking on snow, and icy wind might be blowing in your face depending on which direction you walk. So yeah, this is very much not a walk in the park, especially when you are being an idiot - like myself - and take off your outer-layer-mittens in -60 °C windchill for a few seconds to adjust your neck gaiter. Once your hands are cold, in this environment there is no way of getting them warm again with pure blood circulation. I had to walk back the whole way from ICL thinking my hands would gonna fall off (which is a legit reason for NPQ btw). The bad thing: It hurts even more once you're back on station and they start getting warm again. Seriously, that's incredibly painful. Luckily it turned out to not be a real frostbite quite yet. Lesson learned.

Despite this frosty experience, I have been very much enjoying every minute of life on Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station so far, even though I was not able to sleep yet, most likely because of my altitude symptoms and because I am just too excited to be here. This is so very much the right place on earth for me that I am already considering coming back. The station is all neat and clean, the food is amazing, and I feel very much at home. They assigned me a windowless room at first which I was quite unhappy about, but luckily one of my co-Winterovers switched rooms with me - apparently there are people who do not like 24 hours of sunlight in their room ;).

Martin and James, the last season's IceCube winterovers, are turning their duties over to us during the next two weeks. We are taking it easy though while we are still adjusting to the elevation. So there is some free time to kill, which I sometimes spend helping out my new friend Grant in the dishpit - I like it there, and the community very much appreciates people who pitch in, which gives me my daily dose of good-deed-afterglow :)

  • Ice facts #4     ECW

ECWG stands for Extreme Cold Weather Gear and includes all kinds of clothes to protect you from South Pole's harsh environment. The most important ECW item is the "Big Red": The red Canada goose parka which does a perfect job to shield you from the wind and cold, has a trizillian pockets to store (and loose) all your stuff in, and even has your name printed on it so that people know who you are when they meet you outside and are not yet familiarized with the way you walk ;)
Then, of course, there are the "Bunny Boots": Big white boots made out of rubber to keep the warm air inside and isolate your feet from the icy ground they are walking on.
All your ECW comes in big orange bags which further contain three kinds of mittens, a neck gaiter, a hat, goggles, wind-shield pants, and a bunch of other stuff. Everything that's in there has to be returned upon your re-deployment to the real world.

South Pole. I made it to South Pole. The dream is real! This is the happiest day of my life. I can not find enough words to describe how breathtakingly beautiful this place is. I am still overwhelmed by happieness, astonishment and all the new impressions that are flooding my brain right now, it almost feels like flying. ... Or, well, I could still be suffering from altitude sickness which has about the same effect; I feel about 20 lbs lighter and the station seems to move around a little like on a boat. I felt it very heavy the first day, and of course you are supposed to take it seriously, but I actually kinda liked it ;).

The temperature at Pole is a negative 45 °C right now (that's kinda chilly). The sun is high up in the sky as it will be for the next months. The picture you can see above is taken around 10 pm. Settling in on station, being handed over my new job and processing all the amazing stuff that is happening on top of that keeps me very busy, but you will hear from me shortly!

My stomach begins to feel funny as the pilot starts to accelerate the big C-17 "globemaster" airplane on the runway. Without my earplugs, the noise of the engine is almost unbearable. I can not see what is going on, because we are strapped to our jumper seats on both sides of the cargo hold, facing big containers between us. From here, it is impossible to see through one of the few tiny circular windows. It takes almost forever until the massive structure of steel and khaki has gained enough speed to finally take off - on its way to Antarctica!

Flying in a C-17 is an adventure by itself. No commercial airline flies to Antarctica, so you get to fly with one of these badass military planes of the American Air Force - not exactly the most comfortable experience in the world, but definitely exciting!

Almost everybody who is on transit to South Pole has to go through McMurdo station. It is the biggest of the Antarctic stations; in summer it can hold up to 1200 people. I only spent one night here, so I did not get to see all the facilities except my quarters, the galley and both bars.
The gateway to South Pole is William's airfield, which is located about 30 minutes away from McMurdo station by "Ivan the Terra Bus", a terribly slow vehicle that used to shuttle passengers in McMurdo for generations. People get to wait around at the airfield a lot, because it happens quite occasionally that flights get canceled at last minute due to bad weather in McMurdo, at South Pole or in between - luckily, we were able to take off after about 2 hours.
The big C-17s can not land on the snowy skiway at South Pole, so the aircrafts flying the primary missions to the bottom of the world are the LC-130s, aka "hercules". They are smaller, lighter and equipped with skis instead of wheels.

*** Coming soon ***

  • Denver: The southernmost fire brigade on earth
  • [prev] [next] [top]
  •   21. Oktober 2017

"IC to Team Alpha: Report your situation!"
"Team Alpha to -bbrrzzz IC: Large fire ... second floor of B building - brrzzzzzzz zz of smoke ... one person missing. I repeat: One person missing. Requesting backup. Over -brrzzzzz."
"IC copies. Sending in Team Bravo."

But there's no time waiting for Team Bravo. The visibility is literally zero, black smoke everywhere. With one hand I feel the ground in front of me, my other hand is sliding the wall; slowly crawling forward inch by inch. My team mate is crawling behind me, carefully following the dim glow of my oxygen tank.
Suddenly my hand runs into something that feels like a human foot - the missing person is unconsciously leaning against the wall in front of me! Screaming our encounter over the coms system, I make a desperate attempt to tie my rope around the victim's chest, in pitch black darkness and with heavy fire fighter's gloves on my hands. Icecold sweat runs down my face as the regulator on my SCBA mask starts vibrating - an indicator for my tank being almost empty.
"I am low on air - let's get him the f*ck out of here!"

When we finally close the door of the smoky corridor in building B behind us, both my team mate and me rip off our SCBA masks to inhale a chunk of fresh air. Sean, the fire chief of the Aurora Public Safety Training Center, declares the scenario successful - what a relief!
As we check on the victim, he is not breathing - which is probably because he does not have a head. And is made out of lead and plastic. He's also not wearing clothes, but that's a whole different story.

You're wondering what is going on? Fire fighter training in Denver, CO is going on! Since there will be no professional fire fighters on South Pole station during winter, a certain amount of people has to be trained accordingly; to become the southernmost fire brigade on earth! Juan, Sean and Jessie are the three professional fire fighters who's lucky job it is to get us in shape - us, a mixed bunch of scientists, technicians, cooks, plumbers, electricians, machinists. We all met each other just this week, and now we are supposed to fight fires together. Exciting!

Becoming a fire fighter is tough. The full gear, including helmet, hood, coat, pants, boots, gloves and air pack, weighs almost 30 kg. They make us crawl through mazes, fully bunkered up, in complete darkness and while breathing off a tank. I am actually pretty good at the maze because I am tiny, with a record time of 5:15 minutes! What I am not good at is dragging unconscious people around, let alone up a flight of stairs. I have a hard enough time carrying my own extra weight of gear! Every night I get home with sore muscles, dirty clothes and outright utterly exhausted. At this point I want to acknowledge my sister Claudia, who happens to be an actual professional fire fighter: You are my hero! :)
Despite the physical inconveniences the fire training might bring along, I am having the time of my life right now. If you ever get the chance to winter at Pole, sign up for fire training - trust me, that's what you want. Not only because the lieutenant is really cute.

One last thing: It never gets old to see people in full gear wiggling their butts to prevent their fire-fighter-is-not-moving-alarm-device from going off all the time... :D

For my German-speaking friends:

Herzliche Einladung zum Astroseminar der Uni Münster! Als alter winterover-Hase wird mein Kumpel Emanuel dieses Jahr einen Vortrag mit dem Titel "Von Neutrinos und Erdbeeren am Südpol" über sein Jahr in der Eiswüste halten. Dazu gibt es wie immer jede Menge andere spannende Vorträge rund um das Thema Astrophysik; eingeladen ist jeder, der Bock drauf hat (kein Physik-Vorwissen erforderlich).

Wann: 20. - 21. Oktober (Fr und Sa)
Wo: Wilhelm-Klemm-Str. 10, 48149 Muenster
Link: https://www.uni-muenster.de/Physik.Astroseminar/

The most important lesson I learned in the last couple of months: NEVER provoke your own luck at the airport with a carelessly spoken jings. "I never lost a bag at the airport before" is NOT a smart thing to say when baggage claim is about to start.
So yeah, my vacation started with a couple of hours of unintended idle time at the airport, in which I was waiting for my luggage that apparently decided to board a different plane than myself. Anyway, in the end I was happily reunited with my bag, my boyfriend Simon and my parents at exit 5 of Düsseldorf airport, ready for my 10-days of home vacation.

These 10 days unfortunately went by in notime. I tried to spend as much quality time with Simon and my friends as possible, visit all my favorite Münster bars and restaurants, have a little coffee party with the guys from AG Kappes - my workgroup at the Münster physics department - and I even had another little going-away party just for my family! I have not yet fully realized I won't be seeing those folks for over a year. I am afraid that's about to hit me very soon...
Luckily Simon made me the most awesome going-away present: A virtual 360 °Cpanorama tour of all my favorite places in the "real world". This is where I will be going when I become homesick.

  • Ice facts #3     Packing for Pole

So how does a winterover's packing list look like? First of all, you need a year's supply of EVERYTHING. This is more difficult than it sounds - or do you know exactly how much toothpaste you use up in 13 months? Or what kind of medication you might need? You can not just pack everything "just in case", since every winterover has a total baggage allowance of 46 kg.
Next to toiletries and all that everyday stuff, you need things that keep you entertained. I packed a shitload of yarn - maybe by the end of winter everybody on station will have a silly handmade sweater they didn't ask for! :D
The more nostalgic winterovers also should pack a buncha' photographs of their loved ones - there's no seeing them in a looooong time.

The most expensive and spacially demanding items in a winterover's bag: Warm clothes. Lot's of it. That includes heavy socks, hats, scarfs, balaclavas and long underwear. And of course you want the fancy Merino stuff, so plan on spending quite some money (for what I know it's worth every penny though; I got to try some of it during some cold Madison days already). And that's only the base layer of what you will be wearing at Pole. The ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear will luckily be issued to you right before you go - you have to give it back upon re-deployment when your year is over though.

The good thing is: During the austral summer, people can send you stuff. So if you forgot to pack your underpants, it's not the end of the world - at least not if you notice before the end of summer ;)

The electric screwdriver utters a tiny bzzzzzzzd, as I affix the last bolt into the heavy lid of the IceCube cargo crate. I am now sitting on top of two metric tons of shit-expensive technical IceCube gear! Packing up all that stuff was a lot of fun - unpacking it at Pole in freezing -30 °C at an elevation of almost 3000 m: Probably not so much. The crate will leave for Pole this week, but will arrive about three weeks later than ourselves 'round the end of November.

While we've been busy packing up the crate, summer has returned to the city of Madison. As we step outside, we get struck by 30 °C and the mid-Wisconsin typical oppressive humidity. Time for a swim in lake Mendota! The water is pleasantly cool and so crystal clear that I can see the giant carps swimming around my feet. I close my eyes for a second to enjoy the moment... until suddenly someone nearby fires up a lawn mower the size of a pickup truck. Besides the fact you can't buy decent bread here, the one thing that bugs me about Madison is the CONSTANT NOISE. The lawn around the Capitol gets mowed daily (no kidding), and as soon as the mowers are gone, leaf blowers shovel fallen foliage from one pile to another and back again for several hours. There are always truck engines running everywhere, and the few seconds in between all of this are filled with the sirens of an ambulance.
But yeah, this really is complaining at the highest possible level - but sometimes I forget how privileged I get to be for the awesome job I have in this amazing city, and for the kickass company of my WO buddy Johannes.

Although winterover training has been getting tougher since the focus shifted from hardware to software, there still is enough time to explore the wild Midwest of America. The wildest thing we encountered so far is the "original Chicago deep dish pizza" - a 2 mm thin pizza crust topped with marinara sauce and 4 cm (!) of cheese. Yes, really. There are no regrets.

The sun does not always shine over Madison. In fact, it has been getting quite autumnal around here lately. A perfect opportunity to to get a little exercise in handling my new camera! Trust me though, for a fully-trained perfectionist like me it's not easy to pick up a new hobby just like that. But with a little help from all-time photography expert Johannes, I do manage to take a not-so-bad picture from time to time. My new favorite Madison photograph is also quite a luckshot I guess:

  • Ice facts #2     WO training

Here's to all the people who keep asking me: "Are you getting locked in freezers a lot for winterover training?"
The answer is: No. We have giant freezers here, but those are for DOM (Digital Optical Module) testing rather than for winterover natural selection. But luckily, deep-freezing winterover trainees still SEEMS to have a certain fascination on some WIPAC scientists, so I get to try the freezers out from time to time - and -40 °C is really not as bad as I thought. Until the cold starts creeping up your pants and sleeves. Then it's bad.

So what AM I doing all day? There is a lot of things winterover-to-bes have to learn before being released to the ice. They have to know the IT infrastructure of IceCube like the back of their hands - every single server and switch, all the power supplies, each cable. Ralf has us stripping down each machine to its pieces and putting it back together again - not in the actual IceCube data center obviously, but at the SPTS, the South Pole Test System. That means most of our time we spend between SPTS server racks. It's noisy, but also full of exciting sophisticated technical Schnickschnack! :)

Another winterover trainee task is to load the big IceCube cargo crate, which leaves for South Pole mid September. So far, we packed it up with roughly 1.5 metric tons of UPS batteries and spare hard drives - almost good to go!

Life as a winterover trainee is no walk
in the park - except when it is.

Last week, Johannes and I were roaming the State Capitol front yard, when suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of the Madison Outreach Pride Parade. Shiny clothes, rainbow flags, candy-coloured wigs and lots of exposed skin everywhere. Once we made our way through the marching bands and dancing people, we decided to get some pizza and enjoy the show from a distance - equipped with our cameras. I managed to catch the scenery in my favorite Madison-photograph so far - I decided to go with monochrome for this one, because the vivid colours would blind you for the true beauty of this moment.

For my 27th birthday, we enjoyed a couple of beers at the Union Terrace with Sarah and Khan, two other researchers from Germany we met in our VISA orientation class. We went to something called "Dane Dances" - and holy cannoli, when it comes to open air disco, the Madison folks are ON FIRE!
Speaking of beers, Madison has quite a selection of local brews. Take a look at the picture below, maybe you can figure out why I chose that particular one ;)

The first two weeks of winterover Training have gone by in notime, and I have been very much enjoying every little piece of it so far. Well that's not entirely true, there were some organisational issues to get over with (like getting an American bank account, American Health insurance, a VISA orientation class, all of which came with a load full of paperwork. And let me tell you, getting an American Social Security Number is particularly nasty ;)). But apart from that, it's a lot of fun. Everyone here at WIPAC (Wisconsin Particle Astrophysics Center) is excited to work with us, which makes me feel at home already. Besides, Johannes and I get along great, and I have no doubt we will make a good winterover team.

Having used the words "IceCube" and "Winterover" a lot already, I figured this second entry of my journal might be a good opportunity to explain a little (see below). I will try to drop an IceCube or winterover fact every once in a while throughout my journal, so if you think I'm boring you might at least learn something ;).

  • Science facts #1     The IceCube detector

The IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory is a huge particle detector burried in the almost 3000 m thick Antarctic ice sheet at South Pole. IceCube is looking for ultra-high-energy neutrinos. Upon colliding with the atoms of the ice, these tiny particles produce a little flash of blue light. This is called the "Cherenkov effect". The light can be seen by IceCube's thousands of optical sensors, which have been deployed on long chains by drilling deep holes in the ice. The data collected by these sensors is sent to the surface, where it is recorded and forwarded to the Northern hemisphere for analysis.

To get a better idea of IceCube, you can have a look at the picture below (courtesy of the IceCube collaboration) or visit icecube.wisc.edu.

  • Ice facts #1     South Pole seasons

South Pole works a little differently than what we are used to. There only is one long day (the austral summer) in which the sun never sets, and one long night (the austral winter) in which it never rises. Most people at South Pole only work there in the summer. However, there are a handful of crazy people called winterovers, who stay at South Pole station all year long. This is a demanding and also dangerous job for many reasons. During the long Antarctic night, there is no way of leaving Pole (because the weather is too bad and too cold for planes to land). There is limited internet and NO FREAKIN SUNLIGHT.

Every year, IceCube sends two winterovers who stay at Pole for 13 months. Their job is to keep the detector running at all time.

  • Arrival in Madison, WI
  • [prev] [next] [top]
  •   06. August 2017

"Passengers BUSSE and WERTHEBACH, please report to the Delta personnel at gate A75!"

The announcement echoes from the marble walls of the airport toilet. That's me!
I rush outside, where Johannes, my workmate for the upcoming 16 months, is waiting for me, already having grabbed our bags to follow the tinny instructions. It's not late at all, so what could they possibly want from us? Could they have mistaken the electronics kit in my luggage for a dangerous device? Am I being arrested??
"Congratulations, Ms. Busse, Mr. Werthebach. You have been upgraded to our Delta Business Class!" says the lady at the Delta desk to us, smiling over both ears. Phew. Not what I had expected. Well I call that a fabulous start to my dreamjob!

After having enjoyed the comforts of a nine-hour overbooked flight to the very fullest (including a bed, free socks, cocktails and a gourmet lunch), we set foot to the lobby area of Madison Wisconsin airport, slightly hungover. Our supervisor Ralf is waiting for us. Both Johannes and I have been here before, when we were being interviewed in April for the very job we will start tomorrow. So Ralf's baseball cap already looks quite familiar to us, which makes him easy to spot in the crowd.

After grabbing some dinner in the "Great Dane", Ralf drops us off at our hotel. I am tired despite my ridiculously comfortable flight experience, so I drop into bed right away. The nightly glow of the State Capitol falls into my hotel room window, making sure everybody gets their well deserved slumber.