Sunday, January 30, 2000

Pinsetting for dollars

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Housed in the basement of McMurdo’s Building 63 are two bowling lanes, one of a few remaining manually-set alleys in the world. The exact number is difficult to know, because they are so small and so rare.

The lanes were the site of last week’s bowling tournament final match, won by the Freshies, with the help of the people behind the pins.

Several McMurdo residents are pinsetters in their spare time, earning minimum wage and tips from bowlers.

It’s a rough job, involving constant bending and lifting in a confined space, moving speedily so as not to delay the bowlers, and also avoiding the 10- to 16-pound balls which hurtle down the lanes.

There aren’t all that many pinsetters today. In earlier days of bowling, fallen pins were collected by hand and re-set in place individually, often by young people, called “pin boys.”

At the end of World War II, there was a shortage of willing pin boys. Technology offered another solution, automated pinsetters. These were often cheaper to run, since one or two people could service numerous lanes at once.

“It’s very rare to find people who manually set the pins anymore,” Jim Dressel, editor of Bowler’s Journal International, said in a phone interview.

The machines themselves are also of interest.

“They’re antiques and they’re very valuable,” said spokeswoman Jackie Twa of Brunswick, the corporation which made the pinsetting trays used at McMurdo’s lanes.

Despite the lack of replacement parts, “you could sell them for a lot of money and buy a new center,” Twa said.

Dressel was surprised to learn of the existence of McMurdo’s artifact.

He recalled that in the 1940s and 1950s there were a number of bowling alleys installed in military bases around the world.

But the automated setters used by most bowling centers nowadays were first introduced in 1945 by AML, Dressel said. Brunswick started making them in 1950, he said.

The manual pinsetters in Building 63 carry the following information on the manufacturer’s label: “Style B-10,Brunswick-Balke-Collender.” The machines are serial numbers 1023 and 1028.

The company changed its name from Brunswick-Balke-Collender to Brunswick Corporation on April 18, 1960, according to Linda Haschke, a marketing representative for Brunswick.

Sunday, January 23, 2000

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a Hammerhead!

Published in the Antarctic Sun

It was a windy day out over the sea ice.

Coast Guard Lt. Tom McDevitt, the pilot, and flight mechanic Mark Henley were checking out sea ice conditions and “waving the flag” at the tourist ships in McMurdo Sound.

The pair made an efficient team. Henley’s suggestions were quietly worded questions, like “How much fuel are you leaving for the return trip?”

McDevitt answered, “400 pounds,” but later revised his plan, noting Henley’s implicit suggestion that the wind would be against them on the trip home.

The men are part of a 14-person Coast Guard helicopter crew temporarily stationed in McMurdo. Normally based either in Mobile, Alabama, or on one of the Coast Guard’s icebreakers, the team is now flying their two aircraft from a pad near the Chalet.

The crew, who call themselves the “Hammerheads,” but whose name is officially Aviation Detachment 146, started preparing for this trip in September. They did a lot of work on the helicopters, to be sure they’d be in top flying condition.

In October, the team flew to Seattle to meet up with the Polar Star for its cruise south. On the journey to Antarctica, they passed through areas of the Pacific Ocean that don’t normally get visits from the Coast Guard.

The helicopters flew off the icebreaker at various times to inspect ships in U.S. territorial waters, or to identify vessels suspected of smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants. Those tasks are major parts of the Coast Guard’s job, and even on a trip in international waters, information-gathering
helps U.S.-based crews enforce the law more effectively.

“We go to spots where most of our Coast Guard units don’t get to go,” said unit leader Lt. Cmdr. Rich Jackson.

As well, the ship and helicopters were always on call for rescue missions, had there been vessels in trouble nearby.

The trip to Antarctica and back takes six months. Jackson has planned for 300 hours of flying during that period, and expects to use it all. Some of it was spent on the way down, and some will be spent on the way back.

But most of the flying happens around Ross Island.

The helicopter crews are doing all kinds of work, from remote weather station maintenance to morale flights to the ice edge.

Most of their work involves support of the Polar Star, doing reconnaissance of ice conditions before the ship begins breaking ice, or ferrying people and equipment between the ship and the land.

“It’s probably the most demanding flying that we do in the Coast Guard,” Jackson said. The weather conditions and logistics make it much more difficult than flying from a ground station in the States. Not only do the helicopters have to carry skis on many missions over ice, but the crews need extra survival gear. Fuel-use margins are also stricter here, where weather can ground flights for long periods.

The ship can help, by positioning itself at a midway point in a long route, so the helicopters have somewhere to land if the weather turns ugly.

But even landing on the icebreaker can be very difficult: The ship’s hull is rounded for better icebreaking, but that means it rolls more in the waves than would a vessel with a sharper keel.

“We fly all over the world and sit there a while,” said rescue swimmer Steve Lurati, who has a brand of laconic sarcasm similar to the crew members. In a way, he’s right.

Jackson pointed out that Lt. Scott Craig, the engineering officer, much prefers scheduled maintenance to fixing broken equipment. So the mechanics work hard on regular preventive work and mostly avoid repairing parts on short notice.

Jackson also said this is the most motivated crew he’s worked with on the Ice, which helps because, as with everything in Antarctica, nothing goes exactly as planned.

“It’s never the same game twice,” he said.

The crew will be in McMurdo until the icebreaker departs with the Greenwave for the return journey to the U.S. The helicopters will fly off the breaker in San Francisco in April, and head back to Alabama.

Sunday, January 16, 2000

Out of Africa: A polar researcher

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Outside an elevated building near the South Pole, an Egyptian flag flaps in the polar wind. It belongs to Ashraf El Dakrouri, a laser scientist at the Aerophysical Research Observatory at South Pole Station.

El Dakrouri is the first Egyptian at the South Pole. For that matter, he pointed out, he is the first
person from either an Arab or a Muslim nation to go to the South Pole.

It’s a long way from Cairo to 90 degrees south, and El Dakrouri plans to winter at the pole as part of his research on the temperature of the mesosphere. He’s never done anything quite like this before.

“I don’t know what will happen,” El Dakrouri said. But he is in good spirits and is looking forward to the challenge. The experience may be even more difficult for him than for most pole winterovers.

El Dakrouri was married only a year and a half ago. He and his wife have a 6-month-old son in Cairo. They live with her family, and with his also nearby, there is plenty of help available.

“She lives with a lot of people, not like me,” El Dakrouri said.

He asked his wife about the possibility of his coming to the South Pole. She was initially reluctant, he said, but she eventually agreed, on the condition that he call every week. He does, using the phone facilities available each weekend.

Being away from family is tough, El Dakrouri said. But being able to do this sort of work, and being a pioneer for African Antarctic research, are important, too, he said.

It has been especially difficult to be away from home recently, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is a time of fasting and then feasting, usually with family. El Dakrouri is alone this Ramadan.

“The Egyptian people prefer to spend Ramadan in Egypt,” he said. “Next year I will spend Ramadan in Egypt.”

The year after that, he things he might come back to Antarctica the following year.

Ramadan has been strange for El Dakrouri, too, since eating is forbidden between sunrise and sunset. In a land with 24-hour daylight, that doesn’t quite work.

He knew he would have to deal with this, and asked religious leaders in Egypt what to do. They told him he could use the time of sunrise and sunset in the nearest country, so El Dakrouri is using New Zealand.

The fast is longer here, because of the higher latitude of New Zealand. In Egypt, he said, the time between sunrise and sunset is usually 12 to 15 hours, but here it is nearly 18.

“I try to sleep,” El Dakrouri said of how he spends his fasting time.

The galley staff at the station accommodate his unusual mealtimes, and help him avoid pork, a forbidden food for Muslims. They sometimes make a separate portion for him so it’s hot when he comes in to eat around 8 p.m.

Ramadan recently ended. Instead of the traditional celebration marking the end of the month, El Dakrouri did something a bit different.

“I try to make something fun for my feast,” he said. He headed to McMurdo for a couple of days to telephone his friends and family in Egypt.

He will return to Egypt at the beginning of next summer, to report back to the National Institute of Laser Science in Cairo, where he is a researcher, and to return to his teaching duties at Cairo University.

He feels some pressure now, though. Not only is his work new research, but he wants to become a better instructor as a result of his time here.

“I must take something higher to teach the students afterward,” El Dakrouri said. “A lot of students have a lot of ideas.”

He wants to encourage them to follow their dreams. He also hopes to make a good impression on the U.S. program and on his fellow researchers. He believes he is a representative of scientists from Egypt, Africa, and the Arab and Muslim worlds, who may one day work in Antarctica too.

“If you are the first person to so something, you want to do it very well,” El Dakrouri said. “I am a beginning. I hope a lot of people come after that.”

A SPARCLE in their eyes

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Scientists who study gases mostly confine them to flasks in laboratories. Not Stephen Warren and Von P. Walden, atmospheric researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle. They are studying the air out on the polar plateau.

Away from the sterile, controlled environments of indoor research facilities, Warren and Walden have created their own work site right next to the Clean Air Sector. The project is called SPARCLE, the South Pole Atmospheric Radiation and Cloud Lidar Experiment.

“We’re studying processes important for climate,” Warren said. In 1985, Warren began examining how sunlight reflecting off snow affects the energy budget of Antarctica. An significant reason for the extreme cold of Antarctica is that snow reflects 83 percent of the incoming solar energy. Warren also looked at the sizes and shapes of the snow crystals themselves to learn why snow reflects sunlight the way it does.

Walden studied the other half of the energy budget, measuring the amount of infrared energy emitted by the different gases in the air, as well as by clouds. He found that even the small amount of water vapor over the plateau was responsible for two-thirds of the natural greenhouse effect here, and carbon dioxide was responsible for most of the rest.

Now they are combining their efforts in a two-pronged attack on a tough problem.

“The most important greenhouse gas, worldwide, is water vapor,” Warren said. But nobody has accurately measured how much infrared energy it is capable of absorbing at low temperatures.

This information is vital for predictions of climate change not just in Antarctica but around the world.

And conditions on the ground at the South Pole, with temperatures dropping to minus 120 F, are similar to those at high altitude, in the upper troposphere, elsewhere in the world.

Learning more about the interactions between water vapor and infrared energy helps make climate-change models more accurate. While many causes contribute to climate change,
Warren said, they come back to one place.

“They either start with radiation or involve radiation,” he said.

The team, including graduate student Penny Rowe and research meteorologist Richard Brandt,
has devised two different ways to look at water vapor.

One is using the flat expanse of the polar plateau to provide a long path of uniform air. They have an instrument that reports how much infrared energy is absorbed by water vapor in the air. But it can be reconfigured to measure how much infrared energy is emitted by the atmosphere.

Water vapor’s absorption, Walden said, is weak in parts of the infrared spectrum. So to measure it accurately requires a lot of water vapor in the air. At high temperatures, it’s easy to get lots of water vapor in a small chamber in a laboratory. But such high-temperature measurements
may not be applicable to the cold upper troposphere. At low temperatures, the only way to get sufficient water vapor is with a long distance, more than half a mile, of air. Because the plateau is featureless, the air moving across it is usually fairly uniform in terms of wind speed and direction, humidity and temperature.

The other way the team is measuring the characteristics of water vapor is with a tethered balloon. They can send different instruments up with the balloon, to more than a mile high,
and photograph ice crystals and measure humidity and temperature. Most of the water vapor in the atmosphere is in the lowest mile of air.

The tethered balloon also allows the team to take sustained measurements at fixed altitudes, which is uncommon. Usually this type of research is done from freely rising balloons or from
airplanes, which move quickly through clouds and also may alter the cloud properties.

Their observations are compared with existing models of the atmosphere and its characteristics. In collaboration with other climate modelers, the team’s new data can be incorporated into improved concepts of the climate.

The information is also useful for interpreting data from satellites and other remote-sensing devices. The devices can record observations, but to interpret that information requires a
knowledge of the processes involved, including how gases absorb radiation.

But Warren and Walden can’t observe everything at once. To complete their descriptions of atmospheric conditions, they collaborate with NASA, NOAA and local weather observers.

This summer’s research is largely a testing phase. Much of the real work will happen next summer and over the following winter of 2001. Two members of the group will winter at the
South Pole to conduct the research, which uses existing tools in new ways.

One of the instruments was originally designed to measure pollutants coming out of factory smokestacks. Now it’s in use measuring water vapor in Antarctic air.

“We’re using new technology to increase our understanding of the Antarctic continent to make better predictions of climate for this region,” said Walden.

Sunday, January 9, 2000

Tropical trekkers reach South Pole

Published in the Antarctic Sun

The first Singaporean expedition to Antarctica reached the Pole New Year’s Eve, after 57 days of sledging. The team, none of whom had ever skied before, traveled nearly 700 miles from Horseshoe Valley just north of Patriot Hills.

“It’s an extra challenge for Singapore,” said team member David Lim. The small southeast Asian country is in the tropics. Its highest natural point is only 500 feet above sea level.

“We have a little extra gap to bridge,” Lim said.

Last year several members of the group climbed Mount Everest, which caused a national sensation in the tiny city-state.

The public interest and available sponsorship dollars convinced the team to attempt a ski and sledge journey from 80 degrees south to the South Pole.

The planning began shortly after they returned from Everest, in May 1998. “We rested for one or two months, and got restless again,” said team member Khoo Swee Chiow.

In July 1998, they began preparation. In May 1999, they trained with British polar adventurer Roger Mear in Greenland.

“We didn’t know how to sledge,” Lim said. “And we had zero skiing ability.”

From that dubious beginning in Greenland to a second training trip in New Zealand in July, they felt prepared, but Antarctica still offered a challenge.

The first trial was arriving on the continent. Weather kept them in Punta Arenas, Chile, for nine days beyond their intended departure date. During that time, they met some others involved in Antarctic expeditions this year: the British and Australian team whose leaky fuel ruined their chances of a continental traverse.

They finally began their journey from 80 degrees south on November 4. Antarctica was just introducing itself.

“Most of us here have not been to this kind of cold,” said Khoo, a software engineer with Singapore Airlines. The team endured cold reaching minus 67 F, and a 46 mph headwind.

At 87 degrees south, they hit bad weather that forced them to hunker down for two days, the longest delay of the trip.

“Eighty-seven to 88, that was like the South Pole putting up her last defense,” Khoo said.

On the plateau before reaching the Pole, they met the British-sponsored “Last Degree” team who were skiing from 89 degrees south to the Pole.

The Singaporean prime minister is their primary patron, encouraging their mission “to promote the spirit of adventure in Singaporean youth,” said expeditioner Ang Yan Choon.

They left the Pole in a private Twin Otter operated by Adventure Network International on January 3. But a number of items would remain in the ANI cache at the Pole.

“Anything that’s edible or usable we’ll leave here for others,” Choon said.

The team will travel back to Singapore via Chile and New York. Their next adventure destination is uncertain at the moment, though the team all smiled when they thought of a “next time.”

“The world is pretty big,” Lim said.

The pull of the Pole

Published in the Antarctic Sun

At South Pole Station, in the middle of the polar plateau, people keep showing up. While most fly here on LC-130s, there are a growing number who can say they got here by land.

Just the other day, seven men in bright orange jackets appeared outside the station. They were Argentinians who had driven snowmobiles from Belgrano Station near the Weddell Sea, at the same latitude as McMurdo. It had taken them 38 days.

The previous day, nine skiers had arrived from the Weddell Sea coast. Among that group were the first British women to travel overland to the pole, the first married couple to do so and the first Australian to visit both poles.

A significant spot in an otherwise featureless landscape, the South Pole is an appealing goal for Antarctic adventurers traveling on the frozen plateau.

Mike Thornewill, of the multinational expedition, said he has been trying to get here for 30 years.

“I couldn’t get a plane so I had to walk,” he said. His wife Fiona, one of the first British women to get to the pole on skis, was equally pleased.

“It’s such a privilege to be here,” she said.

The expedition was a fundraiser for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity. They have already raised $150,000. It’s part of their effort to involve large numbers of people in the endeavor, which saw them travel 730 miles in 61 days, each pulling a 200-pound sledge.

“If you’re going to take money from the community to do something, you should give something back,” Mike Thornewill said.

But the effort is also for the individuals on the team.

“We have a dream and an earnest desire to make our dream come true,” Thornewill said.

For the Argentinians it was different.

They were on a scientific traverse and intended to camp near the pole for a couple of days before returning to their station, said expedition doctor Nicolas Bernardi.

Other expeditions to arrive at the pole, or to declare it as a destination, included several groups hoping to celebrate New Year’s at the end of the Earth. Four Singaporeans and four British arrived on skis in time, while nine others flew in from Patriot Hills just to spend midnight at the pole.

The conditions continental traverses face today are very similar to those the early explorers endured. Clothing and shelter are of better materials, but hauling sledges across sastrugi isn’t much easier.

Food requirements are the same, if not higher, now. Safety margins are larger, requiring more supplies “just in case.”

Living conditions are still quite spare, the Thornewills agreed.

“I’d forgotten what a clean cup looked like,” Mike said.

Even in these tough conditions, though, it could be worse.

“It’s kinder here than in the Arctic,” said Grahame Murphy, the first Australian to visit both poles. He went to the North Pole in 1994, and would gladly trade the Arctic sea ice for sastrugi on the southern polar plateau.

The desire for primacy in arriving at the pole results in detailed descriptions involving nationality, gender, level of support, method of transportation and the route traveled. For example, Catharine Hartley and Fiona Thornewill were the first British women to arrive at the pole on skis from the coast.

When expeditions arrive at the pole, they are welcomed by station staff, who usually have had some warning of the arrival. They’re treated to hot drinks in the galley, and are often shown around the station’s science and support facilities.

It’s a welcome quite different from the one Scott saw, with a Norwegian flag flying atop an empty tent in the middle of the white desert.