Antarctica

Week 7 January 14 2007 Living at the South Pole

Photos to come later

Last year I saw a statement that no one lives in Antarctica. I argued that spending long periods (maybe as long as over a year), having friends and not friends, developing a lingo, working to earn a living, and in general being part of a community, was living in Antarctica.

We rely heavily on the outside world to provide fuel, food and materials. But once here it is all up to us. There is no disconnected support, such as a camp of people next door that do our cleaning or provide our food. We are all part of the community with obligations to each other. If you do not meet your obligations, very quickly your mistake will be subtlety pointed out to you, and if you still don't get the hint, gentle shaming might be employed. People who fail to understand their obligations to the community usually don't get invited back.

The new station is a massive complex. Okay, for down here it is massive - back home it is a small mall. It is almost completely self contained, except for the storage, garages and power plant in the arches. Most of the science is in outlying buildings, and a few summer operations such as cargo. There is still a summer camp of Jamesways, but this is getting smaller each year.

The station is divided into 4 pods, each of two levels, and connected by 2 long corridors, one on each level. At each end of the station are the two most important places on the station, Communications, commonly known as Comms (or it's less fashionably new name - SOC, Station Operations Center), and at the old Dome end, the Galley (or it's less fashionably new name - the Dinning Facility).

Comms used to be a social hub of the station. The old Comms had a lounge where there was always people sitting and chatting. In the winter there was radio darts, and at Christmas carols by HF. I listened to football, cricket, and the Melbourne Cup on HF radio there. The new Comms is a restricted area. While this is being slightly relaxed in that people can pop in that have legitimate business, it does not seem to be a social gathering point it once was. The old Comms, while a focal point of the station, was a bit out of the way - hidden. You could linger a bit while getting a radio, and chat with the comms operators without feeling like you were being watched. The new Comms has a big glass wall facing a busy corridor. When you are in there it feels like eyes are on you, and this discourages lingering.

Over it's life time the old Galley was expanded in all four directions. Even with this expansion it is hard to imagine how so many people were constantly fed in this cramped place. While small, the cramped conditions forced you to be social. There was a small upper Galley on the second floor, for those with less social inclinations, the bar right off there for those after darker lighting conditions. The new Galley is massive and airy in comparison. There is a bar at the end which is seldom used for it's intended purpose except for special occasions. There are windows a plenty with great views over the plateau and of the South Pole marker area. It's hard to say anything negative about the new Galley, except it lacks any character. It feels like any modern cafeteria, where as the old Galley oozed a character all it's own.

There are 3 berthing pods in the new station. I think the total capacity is about 150 people. Thus with a station population of about 250 this summer, the need to keep summer camp. There are 2 types of berthing, summer rooms and winter rooms. The winter rooms, which are obviously used by the Winter Over staff in winter, are larger. I'm in one of the larger rooms even though I'm not wintering because of my accumulated ice time and senior position. The winter rooms, like everything in the station, are bigger than they need to be. The station has a major problem, it can not generate enough power to support itself. Why? The answer has not been obvious. The station was built to support new and exciting science into the 21st century. So the design should have easily have met the needs of the station and this new science. The fault seems to have been in building too grand of a new station - everything supper sized. I can only put it down to the American way.

The new station has everything the old had, but much larger. The science area is a huge echoing warehouse sort of place divided as best we can with furniture. Met have boarded up a small area in the warehouse using office cube partitions. Between science and Comms is mahogany row, a series of modern offices with great views out their windows, used by the senior station management. There are 2 conference rooms, which considering the old station didn't even have one, are both well used (who knew there was such a pent up need to have meetings at the South Pole). Down stairs is a laundry, the "quite reading room" also known as the library, and the band room. I guess the old station had a band room, in the Sky Lab lounge - but it was somehow different.

For social areas there are 2 lounges. The first is in B1 pod. There is an open area with a pool table and table tennis table, and off to the side there is a TV lounge. This year it has been known as the IceCube lounge from the frequent use by IceCube staff. The main problem for me is that access to berthing in B1 is through this lounge. It is like grand central station. When I relax I want to get away from people, and thus never hang out there. The other lounge has an interesting history. It was originally designed to be the designated smoking area, but with recent social attitude changes, it is now a TV lounge, and there is no smoking allowed anywhere in the new station. The gym takes up the entire rear part of a pod. It has a half length basketball court and a modern exercise machine area.

The new hydroponics unit, known as the Growth Chamber, is off the main corridor and has windows for looking in. It has been extremely productive, and fresh salads are server with almost every meal. Next door is the post office and store. Finally there is a new addition to the South Pole, the "Arts and Crafts" room. This room really typifies the excess of the new station, and should be a candidate for conversion to badly needed storage space.

To try and keep the station population down an old tradition has been reintroduced, House Mouse. This is simply assigned house keeping duties to reduce the need for cleaning staff. Once a week, along with the people in the 3 rooms around me, we clean the bathrooms in our berthing area. There are 24 rooms in our area, so the bathrooms are cleaned every day except Sundays. In addition I every so often clean the lounge areas as part of House Mouse for the IceCube work group.

Another 2 key rules of living at South Pole are aimed at water conservation. We are allowed 2 showers of 2 minutes each a week, and clothes washing once a week. These aren't very onerous restriction. I'm more likely to shower once a week, and wash clothes every 2 weeks. The 2 minute part is difficult with long hair. But I don't feel guilty about stretching it to 3-4 minutes of running water since my frequency is down.

In general I much preferred living in the Dome. The new station lacks character and feels less social, being so spread out. The rooms have not been customized, and we are actively discouraged from doing so. Maybe with time it will take on some character. However it seems more likely the experience of living and work at South Pole will change and adapt to this new environment, leaving the old ways behind.

As I was walking back to the station early in the week I noticed how much junk was sitting around outside. There was sheets of ply, cardboard, hard hards, tools lying on the snow, and generally stuff everywhere. I thought about how at Casey this would never happen because of the risk of the wind getting up. Today South Pole is experiencing what they consider a storm. To quote from the official report of the string deployment from last night.

"We have quite severe weather and the drillers had to battle winds of well above 20 knots when they moved equipment and hoses to the next location. The ground visibility was at times well below 50 m making it difficult to keep orientation when driving a vehicle."

Going up for breakfast there was someone standing around the back door saying she didn't want to walk back home (she lived in a Jamesway) by herself in the storm. I looked outside and could easily see the outline of the Jamesways, and the wind was blowing directly towards them. This attitude to a little wind is interesting. I remember my first week working at Casey and Chompers telling me to take on the cold as I fumbled around trying to do up bolts with my gloves on at a balmy 0 degrees. Polies deal with genuine cold all the time without a word, and a bit of wind puts them into a spin. It's a bit like the helicopters last week, you can't tell what a Polie is going to get excited about to liven up their routine laden lives. I would love to see a good 80 knot blow here to clean up all the junk, and bury in snow anything the wind couldn't deal with. Pole would be a much nicer looking place for it.

Last week I mentioned the change in atmosphere. An example of this was me yesterday. I lost my temper 3 times throughout the day with different people. 2 certainly deserved it. I'm annoyed at myself because it was noticed by work colleagues and will re-enforce an image of me I don't like. I don't like it because it is unfair. I'm continually forced into making unpopular decisions because of unrealistic plans and expectations. I made a conscious effort to reduce my responsibilities in the past year so I could focus on the areas that matter to me most and try and do a better job. However my relatively long experience with the project, broad understanding and practical experience with the systems, and good relationship with other projects and support workers draws me back into areas well outside my official responsibility. There were 2 things approved for this season which should not have been. The first was a contingency measure which was a complete waste of time (mine and others) and money. Luckily, after it was clear it was impossible to implement, though I made a show of having implemented it, we didn't need it. The second is something that has merit, but is putting a burden on the season greater than it's worth. This caused my final loss of temper yesterday. All signs are that the end of season is approaching.

To be continued....

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