Sunday, December 26, 1999

Running with the dogs

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Dogs. Roald Amundsen sped to the South Pole behind them. Robert Scott couldn’t get them to work. Shackleton’s men, unable to feed them, shot them.

Peter Cleary, now Scott Base’s operations manager, took care of Antarctic dog teams and worked with them for three years. One of those years, in the late 1970s, he was at Scott Base. For the other two, in the mid-1980s, he was with the British Antarctic Survey on the Antarctic Peninsula.

“My main job was field support,” Cleary said. In 10 summers on the Ice, this is his second season actually stationed at a base.

He remembers the dogs fondly. He was the handler for two teams of up to 12 dogs each in the summer of 1978-1979 and the winter of 1979. The dogs were big West Greenland huskies, bred for stamina rather than speed.

Though not used as extensively in the late 1980s as they had been in earlier years, Cleary said the dogs were involved in work on the sea ice and in crevasse areas.

The dogs were slower than vehicles, which gave them a safety edge. “Some of them became
aware of things like crevasses,” Cleary said. They would stop rather than go into a dangerous
place. Others, he said, would fall into any hole that happened to be in front of them.

The dogs were around mainly because they always had been. “They were a historical artifact,” Cleary said. “Psychologically, they were really good on the base.”

In winter, during the few days a month with constant moonlight, running the dogs was easy. In darkness, though, it was tough.

Just before Winfly, Cleary would take a team to Cape Royds, partly to get them into condition for the pulling season, but also to check out the sea ice conditions, which were sometimes treacherous.

“You can always pull a wet dog out, shake him a bit, and make him run around a while,” Cleary said.

Handling dogs was a challenge for Cleary, who had some experience with farm dogs in New Zealand, but considered his work on-the-job training.

After three years, he said, “I could consider myself a mildly competent dog handler,” but gave more credit to the dogs than to himself.

The dogs, he said, were very much individuals and had to be understood. Notes from previous years’ handlers were helpful, but experience was the real key.

It was a chance Robert Scott never gave himself. Dog handling, Cleary said, is a hard thing to learn.

Scott was versatile and tried dogs, ponies and motor vehicles. But he had particular problem with the dogs.

“They’re not pets and never were,” Cleary said. That was likely part of Scott’s problem. Scott was unable to think of the dogs as workers. Instead, he thought of them as companions on the journey.

“If he’d put as much effort into maintaining his dogs as he spent maintaining the ponies, he would have had a lot more success with the dogs,” Cleary said.

Cleary had a good measure of success, traveling up to 1,300 miles in a single season, over to White Island, up the Blue Glacier, and to Cape MacKay. But he stresses that those trips were low-key compared to sledging seasons in the heyday of dog teams, which saw multiple journeys of over 2,300 miles throughout the summer.

They always wanted to work, which often made for a bit of an exciting start to a trip.

“In the morning there’s always this insane first half mile,” Cleary said. But mostly they were
slower than vehicles, which wasn’t all bad. “Sometimes you need to slow down around here,” he said.

The dogs also pulled pranks, Cleary said. “Their favorite thing was to cock their leg on people’s legs and piss in people’s mukluks.”

But the dogs became a political issue. During the summer, they ate the food waste from McMurdo and Scott Base. But during the winter they ate seal. The meat was good for its high
fat content, but killing seals became unpopular.

In 1984 at a meeting in Madrid, the countries with Antarctic programs decided to phase out the use of dogs.

In 1986 New Zealand’s dogs left Scott Base for good. “I think at the time we didn’t really realize it was the end of an era,” Cleary said. “The whole business of their removal wasn’t just with the Scott Base dogs.”

The British, who had used their dogs very intensively through the early 1970s, didn’t take their dogs out until 1993.

When they left, Cleary said, “it was a sad day but it had a degree of inevitability. I regret they’re not here.”

He still misses one of his favorite times with the dogs, “listening to them in full throat on a moonlit night.”

Heating with waste, wasting less heat

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Facilities engineers are building two kinds of energy-saving networks around McMurdo Station. One network, of pipes, permits them to heat buildings at little cost. The other network, of wires, lets them centralize monitoring and control of heating systems in buildings around town.

Until recently, the power plant’s engines were cooled by giant radiators sitting behind the plant. The energy, called “waste heat,” escaped into the air. Last week, that changed.

Rather than transferring excess energy to the outside atmosphere, waste heat is now warming three McMurdo buildings. Facilities engineer Jim McAdam puts it another way: “We’ll do all the cooling of the engines with the town,” he said.

This is not the first time waste heat from the power-generation process will have been put to good use around McMurdo. When flash evaporators were used to purify seawater into drinking
water, excess heat from the power plant was part of that process. As well, the water plant has been heated with waste heat since Winfly 1998.

The new system came online in Crary and buildings 155 and 165 on Monday night. Eventually, the project will include the science cargo building, the firehouse, the hospital and the dorms.

“It went real well,” McAdam said of the changeover to waste heat.

It works like this: The water cooling the power plant’s engines will radiate heat to a loop containing a 60-percent glycol, 40-percent water solution. That solution will be pumped to buildings heated with the waste-heat system.

The buildings’ existing heating will remain in place as backup, and will automatically kick in if the primary system has problems. There is also a large boiler at the beginning of the waste-heat
loop that can substitute the engines’ waste-heat supply.

With waste heat as the main heat source for major buildings around town, boiler emissions will drop by 25 percent and over 450,000 gallons of fuel will be saved each year.

“It’s a win-win deal,” McAdam said.

The use of waste heat effectively doubles the efficiency of the engines. At present, only 31 percent of the energy put into the machines as fuel emerges as electricity.

The remaining 69 percent is emitted in exhaust and radiation from the engine itself (39 percent), and the heat removed by internal engine coolant (30 percent). It is the energy removed by internal coolant that will now be used to heat buildings.

The plan is also to replace the existing power plant with newer, more efficient generators. At that point, heat will also be collected from the machines’ exhaust and added to the waste-heat

The layout of McMurdo is ideal for this type of project, McAdam said, because the power is generated close to the community it serves. Thus, it is relatively easy to move the heat around

The added efficiency of the waste-heat project is enhanced by other heating-system work going on around station.

As the engineers install waste-heat equipment in buildings, they are also checking for sources of potential heat loss.

Changes to Crary’s heat flow have cut the building’s heating requirements by half.

“We’re identifying key heat-wasting points,” McAdam said.

Another part of the project, which is also being piloted in Crary, is a remote system by which technicians in the power plant can monitor heating equipment around the station from a computer terminal.

Instead of having to go to each building to check equipment and temperatures, automated sensors throughout the new heating system will make those checks continuously.

One benefit of the new monitoring system will be a better understanding of how heating problems happen.

Rather than solving individual problems called in by building occupants, a technician will be able to look at a whole building at once to see where the real problem is. For example, if a building
is too hot because it’s not venting air properly, a repair can be made to the vent rather than to the heat supply.

The monitoring system also increases the efficiency of the waste-heat supply system. Along with variable-speed pumps, electronic monitoring permits fast response to changes in demands for heat around town.

“You just pump exactly what you need,” McAdam said. “It’s a little bit of new technology down here, but anywhere else it’s not.”

The project is ahead of schedule. Crary was the only building planned to come online this year, but buildings 155 and 165 are also being added now, rather than next year.

“We’ll have the whole project paid for before we finish,” McAdam said. It’s a seven-year plan that will pay for itself in less than three years.

“We can put in as much energy as we need and stop wasting so much of it,” McAdam said. McAdam is very proud of the team working with him on all the changes to the heating system around McMurdo.

“Those guys have put a lot of heart into this,” McAdam said of the workers who spent the winter on the project.

The bottom line, he said, is most important for the entire team. “When I leave we’ll be using less energy than when I arrived.”

High-flying science

Published in the Antarctic Sun

In the next few days, a giant floating bubble will appear over Williams Field and climb high into the heavens. It will circle Antarctica for about two weeks, and return to Earth nearby.

The bubble is a helium-filled balloon 100 feet tall. It will carry a scientific payload almost 24 miles into the sky, from which altitude it will still be visible to the unaided eye.

The Flare Genesis Experiment, as the project is called, is looking at the origin of solar flares to determine what causes them. What is known at present is that flares emerge from sunspots in which the magnetic field changes, becomes unstable and erupts in a flare.

“We want to know how flares are born,” said David Rust of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the lead scientist on the project.

Using the 32-inch solar telescope, the second-largest in the world, Rust and his team can look at sunspots very closely.

By measuring the polarization and shifting wavelength of the light emitted from a specific sunspot, Rust and his team can calculate the magnetic field acting on the area.

He and others have spent 25 years trying to put together a space mission to do this work. It would cost $800 million, though it would yield years of observing opportunities from a space vehicle.

The balloon launch, on the other hand, costs $16 million for about two weeks of observing the sun. The last time the telescope went aloft, in 1997, it stayed up for 18 days.

The scientists are supported by the NASA-funded National Scientific Balloon Facility, based in Palestine, Texas. The facility takes care of elements of the project apart from the telescope and its housing.

“We provide the vehicle, we provide the telemetry system,” said Steven Peterzen, the NSBF’s on-site coordinator. The facility’s staff also rigs the balloon, performs the launch, monitors the flight, and pops the balloon to end the flight. But even then, the job isn’t done. The payload’s valuable instrumentation must be recovered.

“We do this all over the world,” Peterzen said. Antarctica is a good place to send up balloons because of the emptiness of the space, but more importantly because of the regular wind pattern
which stabilizes over the continent in midsummer. The balloon, when launched from Williams Field, will circle the continent and most likely return nearby, to be brought down on the Ross Ice Shelf for easy recovery.

During the first 20 hours of the balloon’s flight, the scientists can communicate extensively with the payload because it is within line-of-sight. They run tests to be sure everything is working
properly, and collect some early data. All data is stored on board for the duration of the flight.

After those first hours, though, the balloon and its payload are only reachable for a few minutes every couple of hours. If something goes wrong, the scientists can load all of their equipment into
the back of an LC-130 and fly closer to the payload, to regain line-of-sight communications.

The NSBF team at Williams Field has enough equipment to have the two balloons in the air at once, though that has never happened before in Antarctica.

They can only have one at a time in line-of-sight, though, meaning a second launch can follow the first only after a day or two.

Later this season a similar launch will lift a project run by a research team led by scientists at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Washington, who didn’t even expect
to launch their project in Antarctica this season.

They had hoped to launch in Alaska last June, but were unable to. Then, in August, they got a phone call: Another group wasn’t ready to come to Antarctica.

They scrambled to make the trip, helped by the fact that they’d never really unpacked in June.

“It was all still in boxes,” said Robyn Millan, a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Space
Sciences Laboratory.

The instruments will show them more about aurora, the ghostly lights in the sky at high latitudes. Aurora are caused by electrons from space entering the Earth’s atmosphere. They release energy in the electrically-charged areas of the upper atmosphere, emitting visible light and X-rays.

The balloon’s altitude allows X-rays to be observed before they are absorbed by the atmosphere. The balloon also allows a relatively heavy payload to be launched, as compared with satellites, where weight is at a premium.

Further, while a satellite moves very quickly through a large range of areas, a balloon stays relatively stationary.

This permits the researchers to determine whether what they observe is related to the location of its observation or the time of the event.

Millan emphasized the academic value of a balloon-based project, which has a slower timetable than a satellite mission. The extra time lets students take a more active role in the work. They build the equipment, receive the results and analyze the data within the time frame of an advanced degree program.

Also on the X-ray payload is what is called a “piggyback” experiment, using space and weight within the allowed limits but unused by the primary research.

NASA is testing shielding materials for space vehicles. Some payloads have been “fried” by the solar energy, which can be absorbed into the payload vehicle and cause overheating of components.

Sunday, December 12, 1999

Out on a wire: Electronics techs keep McMurdo grounded

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Airplanes are flying and weather reports are coming in. Making it all possible are a small group who have their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Behind the scenes of the weather and air-traffic-control operations in Antarctica is an unsung team of electronics technicians who keep all the equipment running properly.

They’re part of the Aviation Technical Services contingent in McMurdo Station. Led by Mike Rugg, the team has two major elements.

Out at the airfield, there are the “Ice Elecs,” who keep the radios and navigational instruments working for the proper operation of the airport. They also maintain the weather equipment that records conditions at the runway, which often differ greatly from the situation in town.

And in MacTown, there are the “Mac Elecs,” who work with the air-traffic-control and weather instrumentation here and across the Ross Ice Shelf.

“It’s probably the best job on the continent,” said Jon Shields, the supervisor of the team in town.

They travel to Williams Field and automated weather system sites, he said, to install and maintain equipment. They also have some flexibility about where they work. Devices need to be
checked in a number of nearby locations. Shields likes being able to choose where he’ll stop by next.

Like a lot of material in Antarctica, the equipment isn’t necessarily all that modern, but it’s functional and durable, which is more important.

A few years ago, one team’s members invented and built an instrument for the air traffic control group. There’s no book for it, and no spare parts. But it’s still working.

Even for things which do have manuals, the parts occasionally aren’t handy. Technicians sometimes have to look at the spare bits and pieces they have lying around and make repairs with them.

In addition to repairs, the electronics technicians have recently been installing automated weather stations around the Ross Ice Shelf to help meteorologists measure and predict weather at McMurdo and the airfield.

They put in 10 stations last week after waiting two weeks for the weather to clear enough to fly. One of them took seven hours to put in, drilling and chipping through ice, but most of them take
between 60 and 90 minutes, since they’re installed in snow.

In preparing to move the airstrip from the sea ice to Williams Field, the runway technicians have been setting up and testing the navigational aids pilots need to land and take off.

“Things have been going pretty well,” said Larry Lainey, the team leader at the runway.

Lainey is happy that they now have two control towers and two navigational beacons. It means they’ve had a spare of each this season, and will have a spare when the move to Williams is complete.

But the crucial difference, Lainey said, is that they can have both runways fully functional at the same time when the move is taking place. In previous years, they’ve had to take down the control equipment at the sea ice runway, move it to Williams, and set everything up again.

Now they can set things up at Williams Field ahead of time and be ready when the move happens.

Weather is a factor in this, too. While the buildings are being dragged to their new location, they have no heat. This can cause problems trying to use the equipment right away in the new site.

“Electronic equipment works a whole lot better when it’s had a chance to warm up and get to a stable temperature,” Lainey said.

The electronics technicians have an unusual job, in that if they do their work properly, nobody knows they work; all the instruments just run well. But when things go wrong, they’re the ones in demand. Usually things work well, but it’s rarely just one piece of gear which goes down at a time.

“Everything breaks at once,” Shields said. But then, usually, it gets fixed quickly and the technicians can return to maintenance, upgrades and new installations.

Sunday, December 5, 1999

Mac Center, nerve center

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Attention aircraft over Antarctica: this is where to report. Passengers and crews on U.S. planes and helicopters anywhere on the Ice rely on Mac Center for safety and information.

When things are going well at McMurdo Station, Mac Center is hopping. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft over much of the Antarctic continent are controlled from a small room in Building 165.

When things are going badly, the search-and-rescue team gathers here, as does the mass-casualty response team.

But most of the time, work at Mac Center is about air traffic control. Three thousand square miles of area, from sea level up tens of thousands of feet, are kept in order at Mac Center. And without radar, the controllers have to keep a mental picture of this huge region in their brains.

There are large areas of Antarctica which don’t have air traffic control, but the people in Mac Center have to keep tabs on those areas as well, since many of the planes crossing the continent fly through its area of control somewhere on the flight path.

Flights from Africa to Australia and New Zealand routinely cross Antarctica on great circle
routes; Qantas, Australia’s airline, offers sightseeing flights over Wilkes Land which sometimes
brush the edge of Mac Center’s responsibility range.

Juggling radios, telephones, and pencils, the people who work in Mac Center track everything, in their heads and on paper. There are route-checkpoint forms, radio-contact forms and weather updates which shuffle past the control desk.

“You have to do all this for each plane,” said air traffic control manager Dave Ferguson, gesturing at a set of papers including a long form with spaces for weather conditions, time, and flight direction, among other data.

It’s not self-contained. Telephone calls have to be made to Auckland when planes fly across 60 degrees south latitude, the northern boundary of Mac Center’s responsibility area. Pilots and controllers depend on reports from Mac Weather, the field camps and aircraft in the air for flying condition information.

Tapes are rolling the whole time, too. They’re used for quality control and for training, as well as providing backup in the event of an emergency, so investigators can try to piece together what happened.

Even when most of the planes are on the ground or out of Mac Center’s airspace and things are a bit slow, it is not the time to slack off. Someone might radio in any minute, needing information or help. Mac Center stands by.

Cold Hard Facts

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Does the water in the sink, toilet or tub spin down the drain in opposite directions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres? If so, why?

You probably learned about the Coriolis Effect in high school or college science classes. This effect, caused by the rotation of the Earth, does mean that weather patterns and ocean currents spin counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.

But this effect is fairly small, and does not make much impact on such small amounts of water as those in a sink or toilet. Amounts of water along the lines of a swimming pool, however, do tend to exhibit the results of the Coriolis Effect, but only when they are drained relatively slowly and
when the water is very still prior to draining.

In reality, sinks and toilets drain in either direction in both hemispheres, depending largely on the designs of the basin and direction of flow of the water toward the drain.

What’s the coldest temperature recorded in Antarctica? The hottest? The highest wind speed?

Here are those statistics according to the website
Coldest: -129 F at Vostok on the polar plateau, on July 21, 1983. This is also the world’s low-temperature record.
Warmest: 59 F at Vanda Station, Scott Coast, on January 5, 1974.
Convergent katabatic winds flowing from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet make the Cape Denison-
Commonwealth Bay region of Adelie Land the windiest spot on Earth. The mean annual wind speed is 50 miles per hour and maximum measured wind velocities exceed almost 200 mph.

Y2K: Is Antarctica ready?

Published in the Antarctic Sun

A thousand years ago, some Europeans feared the world would end with the first millennium. Now, at the close of this millennium, concern has spread to all levels of societies around the world. Some people say the end is near.

Others seem less alarmed but forewarn of gas, cash and other shortages as people hoard supplies they fear will become unavailable.

In Antarctica, and in our support structure back in the U.S., there is relative calm. While it’s likely that there will be problems in some areas of the world where technology lags, the U.S. Antarctic Program has spent over a million dollars since 1997 to ensure that the remote, resource-limited stations in Antarctica will not have problems.

“Basically anything that plugs in or has a battery backup was assessed in some way,” said Beth Bradley, ASA’s Year 2000 project manager.

While many people are concerned about computers, Bradley said, they are not the primary concern with the Antarctic program.

The problem is caused by confusion in pieces of electronics which have internal clocks. If they fail to properly recognize January 1 as the year 2000 and not 1900, problems could arise. In addition, the fact that next year is a leap year compounds the issue.

With power plants, a TV and radio station, medical equipment, and science equipment, as well as the research vessels and the ubiquitous GPS units, Antarctica is a very technology-dependent place.

“We have more than most companies,” Bradley said.

It is perhaps a blessing, then, that some of the equipment in use is so old. Korean War-vintage radios, for example, have no internal clock, and thus aren’t expected to have any problems, Bradley said.

One problem area Bradley didn’t anticipate was the monitoring system on the heat traces, which warm the outdoor utility pipes at McMurdo and the Pole. If it hadn’t been fixed, the monitoring computer would have failed, potentially freezing all of the pipes at both stations.

It’s not just equipment in Antarctica which was scrutinized. Also examined were the resources of organizations with which ASA and NSF work.

The Air National Guard, Aviation Technical Services, the U.S. Coast Guard, vendors and suppliers of equipment, and subcontractors, as well as the New Zealand and Chilean governments, were all checked for potential problems.

“If anyone thinks of anyone who touches our system in any way I’ll call them and talk to them,” Bradley said.

The computer systems have also been thoroughly checked. Some equipment has been replaced, according to McMurdo computer supervisor Scott Ferguson. Some software has been upgraded or replaced as well, Ferguson said.

Protecting network operations is most important, and involves the checking of all computers that arrive at McMurdo.

“Before it gets attached to the network we test it,” Ferguson said.

E-mail and telephone connections are made via satellite link directly with stations in the United States. Ferguson does not anticipate any problems with those connections. E-mail from Christchurch takes a long route through a number of connections on the ground and in space, but Ferguson is confident those connections will remain intact.

Ferguson also noted that there are multiple methods of communication available. If telephones, for example, do not function properly, radio and e-mail connections will still be possible.

Across the board, Bradley said, equipment has been upgraded or replaced. The project has also required a careful inventory of all items in use throughout the program, which was never fully done before.

“It’s really forced us to update and take a closer look at what we have,” Bradley said.

Now the project is in its final testing phase, verifying readiness of all equipment for the new year

“We continue to test and retest,” Bradley said.

Fifty people will work overnight on New Year’s Eve to monitor equipment and make sure everything goes smoothly.

A team in Denver will be awake early to support the Christchurch offices, Pole and McMurdo. The team will then wait for the new year to turn at Palmer Station and in Chile.

Denver’s own new year will come next, and then an hour later Port Hueneme will head into the year 2000. Only then will the Denver team be done for the day.

Bradley is anticipating some small problems, she said, but none with critical equipment. The NSF says it has a high level of confidence the transition to the new year will happen without an
interruption to science research or support.