Antarctica

Week 5 January 1 2007 The Necessity of Power

Accompanying Photos

Living in Antarctica you learn there is a lot in life you can do without. You also learn what you absolutely have to have. Food is important and it's nice to occasionally get some variety and maybe even fresh green things. We got a lesson this week about heat and power.

On Tuesday morning I was at work when the fire alarm sounded at about 9am. The alarm was in the power plant, which if real would be of concern. Soon after there was an announcement to stay away from the power plant as the Carbon Dioxide extinguishing system had fired. It sounded serious. Then the power went out. It was serious.

Our computing equipment, particularly the data, can be damaged if not shutdown in a controlled manner, and for this reason all of it is on Uninterpretable Power Supplies (UPSs). UPSs are just big battery systems that supply power for a limited period of time after power is lost. In our case we have at least 20 minutes before the UPSs start to fail. Since it was obvious that the problem was not going to be solved in minutes, I started shutting down systems. All the communications systems on station are on UPS and should last significant longer.

The IceCube Lab is about as far from the station as anything. Since none of us were on the emergency response teams there was no point going back to the station. The longest power outage I've experienced at the South Pole before this was 2 hours. Before now I would have said outages were rare, and most last a minute or two - usually some minor problem with phasing as generators are swapped. As UPSs failed all around us taking out the phone system and then the radios we realized this was a very serious outage. To compound matters there was an alarm from the emergency power plant. Out at the ICL as communications failed we could only guess at what was going on by watching which stacks back at the station exhaust was coming from.

The main power plant has 3 main generators. At any time one is operational, one is in standby, and the third is usually in maintenance. In addition to the main power plant there is an emergency power plant in the station which can only power emergency and essential systems such as the communications center, the Rod Well (produces our water and would quickly freeze if not operational), and basic lighting and heat in the main sections of the station. On emergency power the outlying buildings are without electricity.

Under normal circumstances the heat in the new station is also provided by the waste heat from the generators via a glycol loop. This heats the station and cools the engines. The heat is put into this glycol loop from the coolants of the engines by a heat exchanger. This is where the problem was. For some reason the heat exchanger had a massive failure which sprayed glycol over the running engine, the next engine, and control electronics. The glycol that hit the main engine was vaporized filling the power plant with hot glycol vapor while a large amount of glycol drained from the loop onto the floor of the power plant. It was very nasty situation which had to be cleaned up by teams taking turns wearing SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus).

After a few hours we decided to walk into the station to find out what was going on. This is when we found out the details. The station was on emergency power and all activity was focused on fixing the problems. By about 4pm they were finally able to go back on to the remaining working main generator. It was short lived. This generator was up on hours and due for a service. Within a couple of days the high summer load (600 to 700KW in the summer) was too much for it and we had another outage. This was a shorter outage as by now they had got another of the generators up. However since then the power plant mechanics have been playing catch up. While we have had good power, there has been no backup generator all week. For this reason we have been in an energy conservation mode and much of science has been shutdown.

As we finish out the year things are starting to look brighter on the power front. The power plant blokes are confident they will soon have two operational generators. The electronic control systems will soon be repaired, and we will be able to go back to full science operations soon. It has certainly made us realize what we can't live without down here.

We had a lot of NGA (Non Government Activity) action this week. A NGA is any activity that is not directly related to USAP (United States Antarctic Program) activities. It can be anything from tourists that fly in for a few hours, to adventure skiers arriving from the coats. This week we had 3 adventure groups arrive. They all have web sites which I'll list below.

The 3 groups arrived on 3 consecutive days. The first was the 4 men from the Royal Navy and Marines on an expedition called Polar Quest. They had hauled sleds from the coast, and intend to ski back to the coast with aid of para foils, or kites. The wind generally blows in the direction they want to ski back. Of course as soon as they arrived the wind started blowing in the opposite direction. It is rare for the wind to blow in this direction, but it has lasted long enough that they have stayed on for New Years.

The Indian expedition had skied in from just short of 100 miles out. While they acknowledged the feat was not as great as the other 2 groups, the goal had been different. While Hannah McKeand had skied in from the coast in an attempt to break the record for the fastes ski trip to the Pole.

These groups have been extremely popular on station. With the military groups having official backing of their governments they were given more access to the station than normal for NGAs. I took the Polar Quest men on a tour of IceCube which they seemed to enjoy. I was probably more interested in their trip than they were about IceCube. I think most people were also impressed by the fact that having arrived they were going to ski back out! Also being here over the holidays, and everyone being in a giving mood, their sleds were probably heavier on their way out than when they started!

The final person to arrive was Hannah McKeand who did break the record for the fastest trip from the coast to the Pole. On the night of her arrival they all gave presentation to the community in the galley. The Polar Quest team had managed to put a very slick presentation together in the short time they were here. Their expedition was very much aimed at fostering the spirit of adventure, and they were extremely good at this. The Indian expedition had a similar goal. The leader gave a very amusing talk about the cultural difference for their expedition, and how they managed to organize it coming from a country where Antarctica does not have a high profile. Hannah had just arrived, and when she gave her short talk had been awake for almost 24 hours, not to mention having skied 730 miles in the previous 40 days. She explained how she had been completely focus on breaking the speed record. Her trip was also different in that she had done it solo, and she explained the extra burden that this placed on her. Hannah's short talk was very emotional, and the full realization she had reached her goal seemed to have not completely sunk in. By the end of her talk everyone here was extremely pleased for her.

By the time New Years rolled around the station routine was well and truly out the window. We had Sunday and Monday off. The traditional big party was held in the gym for the first time. It is a large space, but lacking the character of somewhere like the garage. There was a couple of bands playing. One of the men from the Polar Quest Expedition helped out with some fine singing. But the night was really for the young single - or as the case may be, loosely attached - people. As usual I played cards with mates for most of the evening, and wandered up to the party to see in the New Year, and then got an early night.

The final traditional event of the holidays is the moving of the South Pole marker to reposition over the South Geographic Pole, having been moved away from it by the ice sheet sliding towards the coast by about 10 yards a year. Each year a new Pole Marker is designed and manufactured by the previous winter over crew. The manufacture is almost always done by the machinist who works in Mapo. This person is extremely skilled, having to work on complex and intricate telescopes. In the 90s Dave Pernic made a series of fine markers. His predecessors have since been trying to out do each other, or in recent years Al (an Aussie on a long run of winters) has been out doing himself. This years was slightly simpler, but very nice.

The actual ceremony is simple. The NSF representative says some words about the significance of the event. An honored person plants the new marker in place, and a few people grab the sign and American flag that are next to it and move them up. The actual ceremony and the location of the South Pole is less significant for me than looking back along the line of old Pole Markers. For me this ceremony is a physical manifestation of time. Each of the old posts in the ice going back about 80 yards represents a year of my life. I guess it's something you don't want to dwell on too much.

After the ceremony the Polar Quest Expedition men, who were still here - the others having been picked up by plane - talked to people and had many photos taken. The wind had started to finally blow in their favor. Sven (a work friend) had offered to tow them by snowmobile out past the station and the long antenna that cuts their path back. I eagerly went along for the ride, to see them off, and to get away from the station for awhile. We pulled them out about 5 miles from the station. We could still see the station at that distance, but could not hear the usual annoying station sounds. I had enjoyed meeting and spending a bit of time with this group. I was glad that they were on their way home, and happy I had the chance to see them off. It was a pleasant day and getting a few quiet moments away from station was a nice way to see in the New Year.

Happy New Year from the South Pole!

To be continued....

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