My First Antarctic Winter/Over, McMurdo, AQ



Ross Island Dependency             September 1988

                           Page Eleven

Winfly is in the past and the several science projects that arrived are getting started. One project involves fishing through holes cut in the sea ice. They are using 1/8 inch stainless steel wire rope for line. I guess they expect to catch the big one.

Two other projects are working together to learn more about the Hole In The Ozone. The first I went to visit is from the University of Wyoming. Professor Dave Hoffman is here launching instrumented balloons to an altitude of 100 thousand feet to measure the concentration of ozone in the upper atmosphere and to collect cloud particles on a Formvar coated film. Ozone should be one part per million in the area of 14 to 20 kilometres above the earth and to measure that the sampling instrument will pump air through the solution of a small cell not unlike the cell in a storage battery. The ozone will charge this cell and the voltage produced is measured and sent, along with outside temperature and pressure, by radio telemetry to the ground station where the data are collected and stored by a small computer.

The other project is from SRI International and operated by Bruce Morley. This is a laser ranging device operating primarily in the infrared. The pulse of light is sent to a crystal multiplier and half the energy is converted to green light which is aimed up a pipe and shot out through the roof, straight up to measure the Polar Stratospheric Clouds 14 to 20 kilometres above McMurdo. There is a theory that these clouds play some role in the chemistry of ozone depletion and by measuring the clouds and the ozone concentration these scientists hope to learn more about the process. The laser sends out ten pulses per second and each pulse lasts for15ns, than is fifteen thousand millionths of one second or .000000015 second. To put it another way, consider that light travels at 186,000 miles per second; a 15ns pulse is 14.7 feet long. The continuous average power is only seven watts but the peak power is said to be some 50 megawatts!

One Wednesday morning I went with Beverly Dickson and Ray Tien to the fish house out on the sea ice to help with the catch. The house had been dragged out last week and positioned over a hole in the ice that had been drilled or cut with an auger three feet in diameter. Bev told me that a record Dissusstichus mawsoni would weigh 168 pounds. The ice under the fish house is fourteen feet thick and there is 1600 feet of steel line with nineteen hooks attached to the bottom one hundred metres. The hooks are baited with pieces of fish flown in from New Zealand and below the last hook are five traps made of half inch mesh hardware cloth.

Yesterday I could see several Emperor Penguins on the trail to the fish house but today they are nowhere in sight. They would be the first penguins of this spring and the open water is still several miles away.

The fish house is about ten by twenty feet with a door from a walk-in refrigerator and two double-glazed windows. Inside, a Preway heater keeps the place toasty warm; warm enough that the bait left in a bucket of water on the work bench has become fish soup overnight. I took a few pictures whilst Ray got organised and Bev tested the line. The response indicated a fish in the depths and I felt it thrash about some 1500 feet below.

The bait was missing from one of the first ten hooks. The eleventh hook had the fish. Measured, weighed, tagged, injected, and scale samples taken, all in just a few minutes. I recorded 149cm  and 98 pounds. This was fish number 880011 and was quickly returned to the minus two degree C water. Two more baited hooks and another fish. This one was a little smaller, 122cm and 47 pounds, and Ray said he would keep it for the aquarium tanks for further study. A third D. mawsoni, 141cm and 78 pounds, was returned to the sea after the same data collection process. In the traps were three small fish and hundreds of sea lice, small arthropods that look a lot like fleas, and one pale cream coloured star fish.

The keeper was placed in a life-support tank that would keep it happy until we could get it back to the big tank at the aquarium. Yesterday one of these big fish, also known as Antarctic cod, was brought up tangled and mangled in the line. After samples of its flesh and blood were taken the rest was delivered to the galley; we'll have it for dinner some night soon. One of the things being studied in this project is the antifreeze glycoprotein in the fish's blood that keeps it from freezing.

The view back towards town from here was rather interesting with AcSl clouds over the peaks of Erebus and Terror to the north and a piece of the old Super-Connie's tail fin stuck in the snow nearby.

Today I am beginning to think about coming home though I still have not got a departure date. I think it is more scary to think about coming home than it was to think about coming here. I don't know why. Maybe it is because I am afraid of all the changes I will find, all that is different.

The sun is up bright in the daytime now and I wear my sunglasses, it is strange after so long in the dark.

Now there is not much time to dwell on those thoughts, a week has gone by and I have spent most of it on Black Island. A much needed and enjoyed vacation combined with emergency repairs to the power system. We lost the Inmarsat Communications Link due to a failure in the Ormat generator combined with a prolonged period of little or no wind. Here is the whole story as I copied it from my report...

Narrative Report of the First September Black Island Ormat Repair and Penguin Picture Expedition, 13-15 September 88

Late efoto of Black Island StationThe first indication I can find in any of my weekly reports that there might be trouble in the islands is on Tuesday in the report of 17 June when the Battery Indicator went down to 90%. Subsequently it went down to 89% on Wednesday of the week ending 15 July, 76% on Thursday of the week ending 29 July, 95% on 6 August, 94% on 9 August, 94% on 24 August, but rebounding each time to the normal reading of >100%. On Tuesday 6 September it was down to 93% and continued dropping through the week to a new low of 64% on the following Monday.

Plans were then set in motion to make a traverse if the value should drop below sixty. Each of the indicated lows was accompanied by light winds according to the remote reading Black Island Wind Speed device at MCMWX.

Tuesday morning the Inmarsat did not respond and there was no data telemetry from Black Island however the microwave link and shortwave audio feed were ok indicating that the island was still there and at least in partial operation. The Wednesday trip was moved up to Tuesday Noon.

Al and Dot went in 093 which pulled a trailer containing fuel and heaters, Kirk and I in 710. The Galley did a good job getting our food ready on such short notice, Mad Dog Smith and his crew should get a note of thanks. Tools and spare parts in abundance filled the two Sprytes when we left shortly after 1400.

Along the way out the Willy Road we stopped to photograph a solitary penguin and thus fulfill that aspect of our mission. The ride from there was uneventful to the K.O.A. sign where we paused to eat and get gas and change drivers. Much of the last mile before the sign is without flags.

Beyond that stop to the first antenna the way was mostly ok. The antenna is missing half its dipole but otherwise intact. Between there and the second antenna the snow is smooth and fast. The second antenna is missing both sides of the dipole and beyond it for about three miles the flags are missing or buried. A flagging trip is in order right away on the next good day.

The route past the lake is rough and could also use some work however that part over land to the site is well defined albeit not very well flagged.

The Jamesway had some snow in it but was quickly made habitable by Al and the others whilst I went right to the radio room and got the Inmarsat back on the air. The problem there was that a circuit breaker sourcing power to the inverter for all the modems and RFL equipment had tripped. It was a ten amp breaker running with an eight amp load.

The initial vitals of the station were Battery Capacity @ 64%, Windmill amps 5-10 in light wind, Ormat 15 amps, Max/Min temps 50/76 and current 60 with the heat off.

Back at the Jamesway there was a leak in the propane line where the copper tube had broken at the regulator fitting. This was quickly fixed and the stove and Preways all worked ok. We settled in and then I went back to the Radio Room and added a new circuit breaker to divide the load on the one that had tripped.

Wednesday... The station was completely dead this morning. All power was off though the Ormat was still running and the room still warm. I found the circuit breaker to the inverter tripped again and the main low voltage cut-out in the windmill controller open. Resetting the cut-out was not part of my knowledge and not labeled anywhere so I bridged it with a clip lead and got the station running again. Right about as I was thinking of calling him, Dennis Tupik called and explained a few of the missing pieces of information. The low voltage cut-out was lowered and the clip lead removed.

There is 30 inches of DFA in each of the three tanks. The north facing sloping V antenna feedline was twisted due to being loose. That got fixed but should be redone more properly.

Kirk had shut down the Ormat whilst Dot and I worked on the antenna. He cleaned the pot burner and reinstalled it. There was some considerable difficulty getting it to restart and during this time we observed a sparking or arcing within the six pin connector between the burner assembly and cable termination mounted in a perforated metal box mounted on the front of the Ormat.

Kirk fussed and poked and measured and spoke various spells and incantations and replaced the fuel valve solenoid. Finally the fire started and ran however very little power was developed and so he shut it down again both to test the vacuum and replace the bad connector. The vacuum was over 25mB and in an hour or so was pulled down to 6mB. The connector was replaced with a terminal strip and crimp-on spade lugs. The wires were all clearly numbered but we had nothing to go on but the assumption that matching the numbers would be correct. There was no wiring diagramme. I placed a call to Keith at Sattrack and asked him to find one of the Ormat books at the Comms Jamesway and in the meantime proceeded to make the connexions the way my measurements and instincts said they should be. There was some discussion about the proper voltage for the fuel valve solenoid; the book says it should be 220 volts but there is a pencil note that it is 24 volts, the measured value is 220 volts. We tried several times to restart the burner but to no avail.

Following the trouble-shooting guide was of little help and only added to our frustration since it is poorly written in that it suggests observing this and that and testing of one parameter or another but fails completely to describe the results one should expect to see. That is it says to measure the output of the inverter but does not say that one should observe 220 volts. I saw the 220 volts change to 100 then to 80. Is this normal? The book is of no help. Seeing that the blower did not start and the fuel valve did not operate was a clue, so I divided the load and determined that the unloaded output of the inverter stayed at 220 and the blower and valve operated ok, but when the glo-plug transformer was added the voltage dropped to 80.

We left off the transformer and lit the burner with a match. Once the burner was running ok I reconnected the transformer just to keep the wiring intact. It presents no load except during ignition. The speed was up quickly and within a matter of minutes we were seeing 30 amps.

Half and hour later the output was 50 amps. Outside, the wind was still calm and supper was ready at the Jamesway. During the night Kirk and I checked the Ormat several times and it was ok and still producing about 50 amps.

Thursday morning I observed it switch from 37 amps to 50 amps. At 0700 I was checking the output and battery capacity, which was up to 65% when I heard a clunk from the burner and the sound of the fire became louder. I saw the stack temperature going up past 280 and the output quickly rise to 50 amps. I don't know if that was a switch from low to high burn.

With breakfast out of the way we cleaned up and did all the necessary housekeeping and vehicular chores. Departure was around 1030. In checking with MCMWX I determined that the radio in 093 is bad. It talks ok but has no receive sensitivity. Also that vehicle has a problem with the front heater. The motor bearings make a loud squeal.

The trip back to MCM was quick. Most of the time we were in and out of a thin ground fog and the temperature was colder than on the way out. Except for the discomfort caused the occupants of 093 by the lack of heat we had no problems. Along the way we observed the trail of a solitary penguin from shortly north of the K.O.A. sign until I gave up watching several miles later. The bird had followed along the line of red flags, weaving among them, straying out fifty feet or so, and back again.

The mission ended with the return of 710 and 093 to the BFC at 1510.

Friday the battery capacity was up to 80%. End of Report.

Some of that may not make much sense to you, but that's ok, some of it makes no sense to me either. The problem with the loss of vacuum is related to the high sulfur content of the DFA and has happened before. The burning of high sulfur oil produces H2SO4, I'm sure you've all heard of acid rain, eh. Down here, being as cold as it is, very little of the vapours get out of the stack; instead they condense on the upper surface and run back down inside. Some of this sulfuric acid gets reburned, some of it sits around on the stainless steel vacuum chamber wherein the turbine spins. After time and a half goes by the acid eats a tiny hole through the steel and the vacuum is gone thus slowing the turbine and reducing power output. One solution would be to burn JP-4 rather than DFA. That's ex-pen-sive. Another would be to provide a better exhaust system which would trap the acid before it can condense and run back inside. That's difficult. A third would be to spend another million dollars or so and by a new Ormat. That's easy. Guess which choice has already been made.

In any case I had a good time. The group was good and the weather excellent and for once we had the best vehicles available. That doesn't really say much for them but at least they made it out and back and started every time.

Now I am down to the wire suddenly. Here it is the last week of the month and I have received my departure date. Twelve October baring any delay. That's ei8hteen days. I really wanted to stay longer, to the end of January would have made 5000$ difference and I would have not had to go from winter here to winter at home, but this way I will get home early and perhaps get to do some skiing.

And look for another faraway place to visit.

My days here have been busy and go by very fast; now that I am so short there is not enough time for all the things that demand my attention. The past week has been spent mostly on getting the Ice Runway telephone microwave link up from its long winter nap. The equipment hibernates in unheated sheds out on the ice where temperatures drop to 40 below; only some of the circuits survive that cold and the vibration of being dragged several miles between use and storage locations. It was fun driving a pickup truck with floatation tyres across the snow and ice at 80 km/h to get to the job site.

Last week was also the end-of-winter debrief. I chatted with a psychologist for over an hour about what I thought of winter-over 88 and how my time here might have effected me.

There is no question in my mind that I am different; my self is older but in somewhat better shape, my Self is where the most profound changes took place. I have a different outlook, or perhaps it would be called a different inlook, for I see within me changes that will effect my life and my relations with others. I know more about my Self and mostly I know there is more to learn.

Here it is the end of September and the farewell dinners are happening thick and fast, two or three a night. Sunset is around eight in the evening and the last two have been pretty nice; I daresay even Little Jon would have given them both at least a four! Out on the ice near Hut Point two large seals have appeared and herds of penguins are seen from day to day along the Ice Runway. At one dinner last night the summer cook for Pole did Antarctic Cod on the charcoal grill Cajun style, I made my now world famous chunky peanut butter soup and Alistair from Scott Base, who showed me how to carve bone gewgaws, made a most incredible cheese cake. There was also some dead burnt chicken and various salads and breads. Quite an amazing pot-luck considering the limited kitchen facilities available to us.

Over at Willy Field there is talk of a twenty thousand gallon fuel spill, jet fuel leaking from one of the bladders. No one seems to know all the details, nobody is saying much; Greenpeace is in the neighborhood.

Twelve days to go for me as long as everything goes as planned. I have been practicing my packing, it might take me several trials to get it done right. Since Pole doesn't open until November I will not get there and my mail that waits for me will eventually find its way to Conway. There are several other things I haven't done yet; I am going to save them for next time. The next week will be spent in tying up a lot of loose ends and taking a last round of pictures.

Twelve DAYS!

And counting...


This letter is COPYRIGHT by Alfred J. Oxton, 1988-2009, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.

No portion may be reproduced by any means without my express written permission.

 A.J.Oxton, OA, OO, OAE,  k1oIq

Evil Al The Network NARC

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