Thursday, February 14, 2013

Back Home with All Pistons Firing

Out for a brisk run at WAIS Divide

I'm officially back home in lovely State College, having survived my fifth season in Antarctica.  Coming off of the ice this year was somewhat of a bitter-sweet departure, as it marks the end to what will likely be my yearly jaunts down south.  The ice-core drilling at WAIS Divide is over.  I know what you're thinking...didn't I say that the past two years?  But this time, there will be no last minute grant extensions nor replicate drill requests.  The drilling facility is literally being torn down next season and other than a couple of weeks of borehole logging, all science at the site related to the ice-coring, ended this year.  There's always a possibility I could head back for a quick pole-net stint again, or as part of whatever future career I end up with, but there's a very real possibility that I may not set foot in Antarctica again.  I totaled up all of the days that I've been on the Continent over the course of the past five years, and that number is 339 days.  What this means is that of my 36 years on this planet, I have spent a cumulative total of just over 11 months of my life in Antarctica.  In a nutshell...nearly a year.

I have a lot of labwork, writing, and data processing that needs to be done, before I can defend my thesis.  This means that this year will likely be stressful.  Nevermind throwing in various post-doc and/or other job applications in there, and I will likely be participating in a unique "academic ultra" of sorts.

This isn't to say that I won't run a few races this year, but probably not as many as last year.  My first focus must be academic.

I've already been busy the first two weeks that I've been back.  But First, a quick recap of my 5th, and possibly final, Antarctic adventure:

I arrived in McMurdo just after Thanksgiving.  After gathering cargo and science equipment, I found I had time to kill while waiting for my flight out to WAIS.  I made sure to get in some good trail runs on the rocky Ross Island trails.  I knew once at WAIS, it would be a lot of skiway running.

I took my annual, and now traditional photo, behind the McMurdo sign, and even compiled this cliche' montage highlighting my 5 years.

A new, and rather ridiculous addition to the United States Antarctic Program, was the oft-talked-about "Kress" vehicle.  To say that it's enormous, would be an understatement.  There's absolutely no explanation that anyone can give to me that would honestly justify the purchasing and use of this monstrosity.  I won't even go into all of the technical issues with a vehicle this size in McMurdo, but that fact that it belongs to the American Program, and is so unnecessarily large, speaks volumes to the stereotype of Americans always needing bigger and bigger things.  Perhaps the USAP consulted with Texas before deciding to drop several million dollars on this beasty.  I made the following image as a joke, but it does serve to illustrate what could be argued as an overall problem with American thinking....

Speaking of the Kiwis, I made another trip over to Scott Base to buy some souvenirs.  Always a blast heading over there.

I managed to squeeze in a little geo-caching in McMurdo as well and found this little beauty hiding up on Observation Hill.  It was buried well.  Who knew that there were active geo-cachers in Antarctica.

Eventually, after about 10 days, I made it out to WAIS Divide.  I secured a great spot in the far corner of Tent City, and got my self settled.  After about a week of "fine-tuning", the drillers managed to pull up the first piece of replicate ice core.  This core was drilled at an angle off of the main borehole, thereby preserving it for future logging.  What made the replicate drilling so revolutionary was that it was done on the up-wall side of the borehole....essentially against gravity.  This meant the drillers had to use intelligent actuators and software to push the drill the right way during each run.  Truly remarkable what those guys are able to accomplish.

WAIS Divide (and my tent site)

First piece of Replicate core!

Special "Milling" head used on the drill to flatten a ledge for replicate coring

Because the first 5 meters of replicate core weren't fully round, nor part of the requested science depths, we were all able to take a few photos holding the first core when it came out.  This is the only time in the history of the project, that an ice core has ever been allowed to be handled in this manner.  It was a bit unsettling having a 40,000 year old ice core in my hands.

The four core-handling science techs
(Me, Ross, Brad, Emily)

First Up-Wall replicate core ever drilled

IDDO's video from the season!

At one point during the season, we decided to host a whisky tasting.  Everyone in camp that brought their own whisky, put it into the pool, and we were able to sample a whole slew of different varieties (mostly scotches).  I brought the Ardbeg Uigeadail.

A few weeks later, there were actually three of us at camp with very Hungarian surnames.  We decided to honor our ancestry with this photo.  I was the only one that didn't actually speak Hungarian though.  (Fanny; pronounced Fawnie, Me, and Ildiko)

As part of my side research, I set up 5 temperature logging strings near camp. Their purpose was to run continuously, tracking the temperature in the upper 5 meters of snow at WAIS.  These data, when combined with solar and meteorological data, will hopefully will allow me to get a better handle on what causes the various changes with near-surface snow that I've documented over the years.
Programming a Logger

Building the Logger Box

Calibrating the sensors in an ice bath

An expansive surface "glaze" I photographed at camp

Putting in a station after drilling a 5 meter deep hole

Putting the sensor string down

One final voltage check

Towards the end of the season, a group of four of us went out to help Brad with his side project.  This project involved digging snowpits and drilling 10-meter shallow cores at 5 different sites near WAIS Divide. (The drilling was done with the same hand-auger drill that I used to make my 5-meter holes for my sensor strings).  The farthest drill site we had to visit was about 40km from camp.  What made this side project so exciting was that it meant we got to drive out on snowmobiles, and then set up a small/remote camp for the night.  In five years, I've never been able to actually camp alone away from a large station or camp (with the exception of maybe my snow school back in '08).

This was our camp.  Two small tents and our snowmobiles.  That was it.

Sampling the snowpit

Driving out to the camp

Another shot of the camp

Here was what I wrote about the experience in my journal and later sent to some friends via email:

"A few days ago, a team of four of us went on a snowmobile traverse about 40 kilometers from our main camp.  The purpose was to drill some shallow firn(snow) cores and sample snow pits on the other side of the ice-flow divide.  Because of the distance from camp, we had to set up a small remote camp and spend the night out there (of course I say night....but it never gets dark).  At about 9 pm, after we had finished drilling our cores, I went out for a walk away from the tents about 2 miles (still close enough to see them though).  It was a fairly calm and warm night...probably about -20C or so.  As I stood there alone, I realized that I was as truly "out there" as I would probably ever be.  It's a completely staggering feeling; an almost desperate disconnected-ness.  It's hard to think of any other time in my life that I've been so remote...or imagine a time in my future where I'll again be this remote"

Time-lapse of shallow drilling

Time-lapse of shallow drilling and snowpitting
(I'm snow-pitting, Brad, Emily, and Graham are drilling)

I left camp on Friday, January 25th....the day the last core was pulled up.  The optimistic, and what many people thought was an unlikely goal for the season, was to drill five separate replicate cores...all from different depths, ranging in total lengths from 12 meters to 100 meters.  When I left on Friday, they were pulling up the last core from the fifth and final deviation.  All target depths were drilled, and drilled successfully, with the entire replicate coring project being a huge success.  The flights home went quickly and smoothly (with the exception of my chicago flight), and now I am thrust back into a busy world of grad school catch up.  It seems I haven't really even had time to process my fifth season.  It was a huge success, but it also went by rather quickly, and I haven't honestly had a lot of time to reflect on it.  I was so very glad to be asked back again and was honored to have been a part of such an incredible crew.  It's hard to believe there won't be any drilling next year, but I know that this is the case.   Perhaps I will find a way back down, and finally break that 1-year-of-ice-time barrier.  Who knows.  I know at least this:  I love working in the polar environment and Antarctica has truly become a second home for me.  It is a magical place that I long to return to every year.  I hope I can, and will find a way back.  

But for now, it's time to push ahead with my thesis and my future career options.  My grad school chapter of my life is slowly winding down and must soon come to an end.

As far as other fun stuff.  Well...I've been up to a little goofiness since getting back.  On February 2nd, I person, the official groundhog day festival.  It was notably more crowded than I expected it to be.  Gobbler's Knob looked like a huge outdoor music concert.  There were easily 10-15 thousand people there.  It was a bit surreal being there, and I was convinced at any moment that Bill Murray was going to jump out.

And finally.......the running.  When last I updated, I was noting my current physical woes.  I was having heel pain, toe pain, and knee pain.  Since taking a few weeks off in November, I slowly began working up my miles while out at WAIS Divide.  By the end of the season, I was back to 40-50 mile weeks.  The knee pain is thankfully gone completely, but I still have come-and-go heel pain.  At some point I probably should get an x-ray to make sure there's no bone spur, but for now I enjoy getting outdoors too much to let it slow me down.  Neither my heel nor my toe have gotten any worse.  

The first weekend I was back in State College, I went for a 20-mile trail run in Rothrock while it was cold and snowing.  It was absolutely magnificent.  In the two weeks since then, I've stepped up my running again and have been trying to get out as much as I can.  I really missed the dirt beneath my feet this year while in Antarctica, and since coming back, I can't get enough of the wooded trails in and around Rothrock State Forest.  I have even been going back to old hill-workout sites from last year to see how I would hold up.  Surprisingly...I managed just fine....

The ol' 1250 feet in 1 mile gas-line cut in Rothrock

Being nostalgic with some eye-popping hill repeats

No comments: