Monday, January 17, 2011

Derelicts, ATMs, and Ice Cores

Another Day of Hash Browns and Cat Food

Here in McMurdo, as with any small town, little events have seemingly great significance. I don’t know what Congress is up to or even how the Lakers are doing, but I do know that after many days of anticipation, the NB Palmer has arrived.

This is a “Jacques Cousteau” style research ship that has traversed across to McMurdo from the other side of Antarctica, where a small US base called (appropriately enough) Palmer is located. Nat Palmer was an American captain and seal hunter who was the first American to explore Antarctica, discovering new land at age 22. (If you’re that age and have yet to captain your own sailing ship or discover any continents, stop slacking and get busy.) He later helped design the fast clipper ships that carried cargo swiftly before the Panama Canal helped increase trade.

Usually a ship here means that Wal-Mart has arrived. Today’s ship has not brought us any supplies—no fresh fruit, no new videos—but the human scientists are swapping out (some getting off and flying out, some getting on board), and there’s a general air of excitement. Maybe we all just like the idea of setting off in a small ship for the unknown, sort of that romantic idea of coasting up and down South America in a tramp steamer. A ship promises the romance of the open seas.

In the background of the shot you can see a second ship. That is a chartered Swedish icebreaker, the Oden, which is helping to clear the channel for the arrival of two tankers later in the month, one with fuel and one with next year’s groceries. I hope the kitchen manager is good at planning out the menu in advance!

Some of the arriving passengers may need to arrange for a shuttle out to the airfield. If so, they may wait for their van here at the bus stop, Derelict Junction. Whether the sign refers to the vehicles or the people is open to interpretation.

Humans are the same anywhere. Are your Christmas decorations still up? If so, join the club. Theirs are too.

Life at McMurdo, as I say, revolves around small crisis points, just as it used to in elementary school. This includes who likes whom (there is a bowl of condoms in the restroom, along with directions), along with the ever-pressing question, “What’s for lunch?” Coming into the cafeteria, the notice board usually tells us what to expect. Today’s entree is cat food.

(A note to any Congressperson reading this blog: (a) your work is really important and I apologize for not knowing what is going on in Washington right now. And (b) please do not call for a hearing on the food quality at National Science Foundation-funded research institutions. WE WERE NOT EATING CAT FOOD. It was a joke! It is okay! Please don’t get anybody in trouble! It was not cat food . . . no, actually it was dog food. NO, IT WAS GOOD FOOD. That was another joke, about the dogs. There was no pet food involved at all. Please, everybody relax—it was a joke.)

A true crisis has arisen though, in that everybody’s favorite part of dinner, a trip to the self-serve dairy bar called Frosty Boy, will not happen today. Frosty Boy has broken down again. This is even featured in Werner Herzog’s documentary, Encounters at the End of the World. This 2008 film has a mixed reputation here on the ice, but as a Herzog fan, I am in love with it. He was able to make a very Herzogian film and to do something that I suppose the upper-ups at NSF were not that keen on. He too was on a Artists and Writers Grant. As a general rule, stay away from artists and writers, as they’re usually trouble.

Another aspect of art are some lovely landscape paintings around base, including the cafeteria and the science labs. These are quite fine, and are roughly four feet by three feet. I like looking at them every morning when I have my cat food for breakfast.

Flights come and go at all times of the day here, and the preparation for departure is called the bag drag. You don’t board any flight without wearing or having with you your ECW gear—this stands for Extreme Cold Weather and is the red program-issued parka and white bunny boots and so on, necessary in case the plane goes down on the ice half-way to point B. You can tell the people about to catch a shuttle since they have to schlep around town with their ECW bags in tow and their bunny boots on their feet.

In some senses, all day and every day is bag drag. Buildings are heated; the outside sky is not. You’re always putting on something or taking it off and finding a place to hang it up.

Inside the main cafeteria building there is a barber shop, a computer lab, the human resources department, a small market for t-shirts and (when supplies are in stock) six-packs of beer, and to pay for it all, an atm. How did Wells Fargo get the contract? I am not sure—maybe there was a sense that if the lines go down, they can deliver some money by stage coach or maybe dogsled.

Whimsy helps make any day go smoother. On the side of a recycling dumpster is this inexplicable stencil. It has no meaning, as a sign—there is not an Inuit playground nearby—somebody just had a sense of fun. Right on. The world would be better off if we did more of this.

Housing is dorm style, from two to twenty to a room. My current roommate has just come in from two months of living on a glacier, and seems a bit overwhelmed to have a room. He has dumped out all of his duffle bags in piles on the bed and floor, like a parody of a teenager’s bedroom where you can’t open the door because there’s so much stuff pyramided up everywhere. My little corner of the room is tidy, so right now we are the classic odd couple. A communal laundry room lets us do our own personal laundry ourselves, with soap provided. (An old-timer gave me a tip, before I came: bring a ziplock baggie of Bounce sheets, since those are not provided.) When you’re ready to fly out at the end of deployment you strip the bed and the housing staff will take care the bed linens. Some mornings it looks like any Motel 6 at 10 a.m.

Up and down station, things have to be washed, cataloged, and put away. The infrastructure to support science in not unlike the supplies that the AVC Math and Science Division has to manage.

For me though, today there are no lab flasks or Frosty Boy dinners on the schedule. Today I am manifested to go out to the great West Antarctic ice sheet, flying a thousand miles from McMurdo to land on a glacier with a ski-equipped cargo plane. Our intended load? It’s time to bring back ice cores. I spoke about time machines in an earlier blog, but what about a time machine that goes back one million years?

Ice and airplanes, two very cool subjects. I hope to post an entry tomorrow with the details of this next part of the great science project.

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