11/14/19 – 11/15/19 First Brief & Training

11/15/19 – 11/16/19              First Brief, and Training

My first in-brief was this morning at a building called The Chalet. Initially, I wasn’t sure what direction to go since I’m still pretty unfamiliar with the area here. I asked someone while walking around and was pointed in the right direction. I arrived about 10 minutes early. When I walked through the door, all lights were off, and no one was present. For a moment the thoughts crossed my mind: “Crap what if I’m late for my first brief? Is this the right building?” I had no way to check. I decided to stay put for a minute since this was definitely the building the guy described to me. A couple minutes later, a woman walked through the door. I asked if the in-brief is in fact this morning. She said yes and that people generally don’t show up until the last minute. That was a big relief. In the next few minutes, the room filled with officials from the NSF and McMurdo station, as well as participants from all kinds of grants & events who were on my C-17 flight yesterday. The time came for the brief to start, and we all took our seats. The officials were in front, beside a multitude of various countries flags hanging on golden stands. We went around the room, standing individually to introduce ourselves. We had to cite who we were, where we are from, what we are doing and what grant/event we are with. After everyone’s turn had been taken, we were given an introduction to the officials in front as points of contact.

I attended a light vehicle safety lecture, as well as a health safety and fire training lecture. All 3 were mashed into one session in the main galley room. Light vehicle lecture is a prerequisite to getting light vehicle operation training, which allows me to check out and drive the modified Ford F250s on and off base. The lecture covered things like speed limit on base, use of the MIDAS parking brake, and chalking your tires when parked. The speed limits are pretty slow in McMurdo; 5mph on base, 25mph off base. The fire lecture was pretty straight forward, explaining evacuation drills and some history behind the firehouse and MacOps. Health safety is huge in McMurdo. There are nearly 1000 people from all over the US packed into base this summer. The combination of close proximity to so many people, and everyone eating from the same place is a disease risk. Even though not required, everyone washes their hands at the stations in front of the galley before eating. People that don’t wash their hands before are shunned. Every year new participants get the McMurdo Crud – usually a virus causing flu-and-cold-like symptoms that usually goes away after a few days on its own. Ever since McMurdo installed hand washing stations and began a more strict heath policy, the number of cases of the crud has been cut in half. There is a medical facility on base where you can get treatment for basic ailments like colds or scrapes/cuts. For more serious illnesses, people are airlifted off the continent to New Zealand.

Fire Safety training slideshow

Later in the afternoon, I attended an environmental field brief. It actually turned out to be more interesting than I expected. I was surprised at how much thought has been put into preserving the Antarctic environment. Everything from sorting your trash in McMurdos different recycling bins, to watching your step to avoid disturbing microbes & lichens while in the field. For example: By measuring CO2 concentrations near the ground, scientists have determined that the disturbance of soil by footsteps are enough to kill off delicate microbe populations in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. With over 150 species total, every region of Antarctica has its own unique microbe populations. Only two species being common to the entire continent. For scientists to accurately study these demographics, it’s important to not interact with the environment as much as possible.

Environment Safety Lecture

After all the lecture, I walked back to Phase II of the laboratory building and setup my hardware for the PCWS datalogger. The hardware today consisted of my laptop, the datalogger, an Atmel ICE AVR programmer / debugger, and a power supply. Normally I would have an oscilloscope ready for decoding serial/RS232 messages, but it’s still in shipment from Wisconsin. I didn’t really need today it as I can still serial data out to my laptop though a converter and read information in a terminal. Today I worked on the Iridium modem software. After some discussion with Lee about knowing when exactly the correct time is to transmit data, I learned that asking our NAL Iridium Satellite Modem for a satellites RSSI (Relative Signal Strength Index) is the easiest way to give que for transmission code. If the RSSI is high enough, a satellite is in view overhead and should be able to receive the data we send. After writing and successfully integrating this new piece of code into my NAL library, Lee and I went off for dinner at the galley with the National Geography group.

The next day, I attended Antarctic Field Survival training, led by our instructor Mitch. During this training, we covered topics such as frostbite prevention & treatment, risk management, and use of survival kits. Mitch started off by talking about the goals of this lecture: to prepare us for possible survival situations, and how to assess them. We first started off by going around the room and stating a risky/hazardous Antarctic situation. Then the person next to you would counter that statement with a safe alternative. When it was my turn, I said “Getting lost in a blizzard while hiking”. The next person then responded with “Stay on marked flags and watch the weather forecasts before you leave”. The instructor wrote each hazard on the board. After going around the room, we were shown an organized way to view these statements in a risk management chart. Once we finished the lecture section of the training, we gathered in the cargo area adjacent to the classroom. Mitch introduced us to survival bags, which contain enough food and fuel for three days of survival in the Antarctic. They also contain a stove, a tent, a sleeping kit, and a magazine. First, Mitch demonstrated how to use stoves, which are small bunson-burner-like apparatus that can burn a variety of fuels. He also demonstrated how to disassemble them, clean them, and exchange nozzles for different fuel types. Next, we broke up into groups of 2-3 and practiced what we had just learned for ourselves. Stoves are pretty simple to use. They have a small tripod that slides around a circular plate for support, and the plate holds a reservoir for burning fuels. Once a fuel canister is attached and a flow valve is turned, fuel flows from a nozzle near the top of the burner. Once a small amount of fuel leaks out onto the plate, the idea is to turn the nozzle off, light the fuel on fire and let it burn out. Once it’s burned out, turn the valve back on, and light it once more. The stove should now sustain a flame that can be used for heating or cooking. We then moved on to survival tent setups. He showed us what an already-setup tent looks like, and then again split us into groups to practice setup. Mitch then showed us two techniques to secure tent stakes to terrain. I found one method pretty interesting. It involves drilling two holes in the ice in a V-formation, dropping the string or rope down one hole, then using the drill to guide the string back out the other. The string or rope can then be tied together, using the ice as the securing point. Training was now complete, and Lee and I walked back to Crary to continue our work in the lab.

I’m now back in my dorm typing this up, with Bonanza playing in the background. I’ve been really into watching old western TV shows lately. Just before I left for the ice, I bought a 2TB SanDisk Solid State Drive and packed it full of movies, TV shows, and music from my old Western Digital Hard Drive. My awesome cousin Grant Koehler wrote me a script which automatically converted my Spotify playlist into YouTube video downloads before I left. Since there is no internet access at the dorms, and syncing Spotify and Netflix is blocked on the only WiFi network at Crary, what’s on my drive is all the entertainment I’ll have for this trip. It should be plenty.

12/17/19 – 12/20/19 WAIS Divide

As I am writing this, I am currently sitting on an LC-130 en route back to McMurdo from WAIS Divide. We boarded about an hour and a half ago, and I just woke up from a nap and decided this would be a good time to write. First I guess I’ll give a little background about where I’ve been the last 3 days, before I get to what I’ve been doing. The West Antarctic Ice Shelf Divide (WAIS Divide) is a Deep Field Camp located at 79.46 S, 112.08 W, about 1021 miles from McMurdo. The trip is approximately 3 ½ hours by LC-130. AWS has many weather stations near WAIS – the station just outside base, Byrd, Kathy, and Bear Island (Peninsula*). Looking back on the last couple days, I wish I could have spent more time there. There was no cell phone service, no internet, and almost nothing to do but play cribbage. The community is very small, around 57 people. Everyone pitches in their part in the form of house mouse duties, such as doing dishes, cleaning, sweeping floors, and even shoveling snow to melt for water. That’s right, all of the drinking water at WAIS is shoveled melted glacier ice from the “Snow Mine”, and it tastes very good. The food is also pretty good. The two cooks, Jesse and Cat, cook for everyone on camp. It’s definitely the same frozen base ingredients as McMurdo food, but better prepared and spiced.

The setting

The environment in WAIS is a complete change from McMurdo. The first and most obvious change was the landscape. WAIS is literally in the middle of nowhere. Besides random softball size snow-chunks scattered thru ought the surface, the area is fairly featureless in every direction. WAIS is located on top of more than a mile of glacier, an ice shelf which extends between the Transantarctic Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. This altitude (6000ft) brings me to the second biggest change, the weather. WAIS Divide is much cooler and windier than McMurdo. The air is also much drier, with a relative humidity around 5% and much lower dew points. The weather was pretty variable for the short time I was there. I saw everything from sunny and clear skies, to heavy blowing snow, to freezing fog. The temperature also varied quite a bit, from 15 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit.

There aren’t nearly as many amenities in WAIS as there are in McMurdo. The camp is only active during the summer months and is taken down during the winter, so all camp structures are either temporary “rac tents” or “modules”. These structures serve for all of the primary staging areas for the functions of the camp. Rac tents are large, half-cylindrical thermally insulated tents with a wooden infrastructure. The main rac tent is The Galley. Here, breakfast, lunch and dinner were served. The camp also held daily morning meetings after breakfast around 7:30am. The galley also contained the glacier water melting system. Near the back door, on the other side of the rac tent as pictured on below, a large 500-gallon drum was nearly full of fresh drinking water. Other rac rents included the Pilots rac tent, and the Rec. These rac tents were each about 1/3 the size of the Galley. 


Modules are basically stripped out double-wide ice fishing shacks on sleds. Modules serve many purposes for WAIS. There is Comms, which provides a workspace, power outlets, and VHF radios for research groups. The Wash module, where there are showers (only cold), sinks, and a single washing machine. The Medical module, where a single physician assistant on is on duty. Other structures included the bathrooms, which were very memorable unheated outdoor outhouses. 

I slept in a 7 x 5 foot mountain tent thought the trip. It was surprisingly warm. Since the sun never sets, the tent had the ability to stay warm pretty well as long as someone was inside. The tents bottom tarp, two base layer thermal pads and a thin thermal insulated air mattress separated my fleece lined REI sleeping bag from snow and ice below. When going to bed around 10pm, I’d be freezing cold by the time I get into the sleeping bag. It would warm me up to a comfortable level pretty quickly, however. Since we were technically in Denver time zone, peak sunlight occurs around 3am McMurdo time. The extra sunlight would cause my tent to heat up to 60 or 70 degrees and wake me up to unzip the -80F rated sleeping bag every night. All USAP bases and camps run on New Zealand time to avoid confusion. Otherwise one would be passing a time zone for every 80 miles of latitude or so, with all time zones converging at the South Pole.

The story

Originally, only 7 of us were manifested to fly on December 17th. It didn’t really work out the first try though. Low visibility and low cloud cover had pushed our transport time from 6:30am to 9:30am, then 3:30pm. After more attempts, the flight was cancelled, with a new transport time rescheduled for 9:30am the next day. This is somewhat typical for flights in and out of WAIS. As I found out later in the trip, conditions in WAIS can change quickly. Weather forecasters are looking for stable weather to activate flights, especially expensive and long-distance ones like this. Fast-forward to the next morning, I woke up around 7am and quickly ran to the galley to check the flight manifest screen and to catch breakfast. On checking, the flight read as “Activated”. I was slightly surprised as we were told the night before the flight may not activate due to weather. After eating, I grabbed my things and reported to building 140 for transport. Lee, 9 others and I were then loaded into and driven in a “Delta” to Willie Field. A Delta is basically a diesel tractor with massive, wide, snow tires and a sheet metal crew cab bolted 6 feet off the ground. The inside of the Delta was lined with every kind of sticker one could imagine. Everything from NASA, to In-And-Out Burgers, the Vikings football team, to the old AWS sticker. Upon arriving at the airfield, our LC-130 was being fueled. We were told we had about a half an hour before departure. In the meantime, we hung out in the galley and chatted with the other groups flying with us. It was now time to depart. We loaded ourselves back into the Delta and were driven to the plane nearby. Once we were off, we grabbed our things, stopped for a few pictures, and boarded the airplane. It was going to be a tight fit; WAIS had just recently had a 14-day flight blackout. The plane was stuffed to the ceiling with crates of supplies. We sat along the sides of the plane in netted seats and stacked our carry-on bags into a pile in the middle of the isle. The doors closed, and minutes later we took off, beginning our flight to WAIS. The flight was smooth, and the sky was clear. Not a whole lot happened during the flight. There was only endless ice tundra to see out the windows. Most of us took a nap or read books/tablets. I worked on some previous blog posts on my laptop during the flight.

View outside LC-130 en route to WAIS

Coming into WAIS, low fog prohibited visibility and I wasn’t able to see much out the window. We touched down, and we began taxiing into base. About a minute after landing, the back hatch of the LC-130 opened up. The Air Guard loadmaster and his crew began untying crate loads which they shoved off onto the taxi-way as we were moving. We soon came to a stop and were told we could exit out the front of the plane. I stepped off and looked around. We were in front of a supply field, with two Twin Otters and a DC-3 Basler parked maybe 100 yards away. Yellow Rac Tents and some rectangular metal structures (Modules) could just barely be seen just beyond the airplanes through the fog. We were greeted by James, the camp leader, and told to meet in the galley, the main staging area of WAIS Divide. There, James reintroduced himself, then gave us an overview of how things work at WAIS. We then went around the room introducing ourselves, where we are from, and what research team we were with, to the rest of the camp.

James – brown sweatshirt standing back – camp meeting

The only AWS tower we were able to service at WAIS was the station about a quarter mile outside of camp. This tower had been failing to transmit since last winter and needed servicing. On the first “night” arriving at WAIS, after Lee and I were oriented with the camp, we walked to the tower to inspect it’s condition and height. The tower structure and angle to ground were fine, there wasn’t any visible damage to any sensors, and there was no ice grime present. The instruments on the 12ft tower were quite low to the ground however, because WAIS accumulates about 4ft of snow per year. Upon opening the enclosure, the CR3000 datalogger failed to power up. This meant that something was wrong with the power / charge controller system, which explained why the tower wasn’t transmitting. That was pretty much it for that evening – we walked back to camp and slept in our tents.

The next morning, we checked out a snowmobile with sled. We loaded it up three 12V 108AH gel-cell AGM batteries, spare parts & tools, and took off for the tower. On arriving to the tower, we began measuring the heights of each instrument, noting them in a notepad. Our first objective was to replace the batteries and check out the charge controller system. This meant digging through a few feet of snow to reach battery enclosures. Even though the snow was light and clumpy, it still took a ton of extra effort due to the high altitude of WAIS. One thing to note was the large amount of ice enclosing the battery boxs. We used aluminum ice picks to chip through it, eventually exposing the plastic enclosures. Hoisting out the two battery boxs beside the tower, we opened them up. It was immediately clear the batteries had failed. They were bubbled up and registering only 6V with a multimeter. The fact that they were physically damaged indicated some type of failure in the charge controller. Unfortunately we didn’t have a spare charge controller, but we decided to replace the batteries anyway. After hooking everything up, the system looked and felt fine. Battery voltage and current draw seemed normal. We then felt confident to fire up the datalogger. It powered up and began working immediately. In light of the charge controller seemingly working, we guessed that our wind power generator had overcharged the system, causing the charge controller to not function correctly either by overcharging, or shorting the batteries. Hopefully replacing the batteries reset the system.

Battery enclosure dig at WAIS

Our next objective was to raise the tower and the instruments accordingly. This required us to unbolt and remove all of the instruments, place a new tower section atop of the existing one, and adjust the sensors to their proper heights. The instruments are secured by U-bolts with 5/8″ and 9/16″ nuts. Some instruments, such as the net radiometer, are secured on a 6ft horizontal boom arm always facing north. Others, such as the RM Young Wind anemometer & wind vane are secured with a pipe fitting clamp at the top of the tower. PRTs, thermistors, and relative humidity sensors are located at incremental levels about the tower. Some of these instruments were at heights which required us to climb the tower. Removing the instruments was pretty simple. Once Lee secured an additional 7ft tower section on top of the tower, we began refitting the tower with its original instruments.

This was where things started getting interesting. As we were working, an LC-130 was coming in on approach to the WAIS airstrip. Conditions were getting hazy, and we could only hear the roar of its engines. A minute or two later we heard the crunch of the aircraft landing on the surface, and the skidding of its skis across the snow. Climbing partway up the tower, I could just barely make out the silhouette of the aircraft’s tail before it disappeared back into the fog. The fog was becoming more and more dense, and we could no longer see base camp. We continued to work for a while, installing instruments and taking measurements. Over time, we realized that the temperature was rapidly dropping. Ice began to form on everything, a phenomena called Freezing Fog. The tower, our jackets, even our beards were slowly glazing over. The added relative humidity also causes cold air to feel colder than usual, much like a wet sauna feels hotter than a dry one. Eventually, everything was hooked together, and we fired up the datalogger. Out of curiosity, we checked a reading from it’s surface-level platinum resistance thermometer: -22.4C (-8.3F). Pretty cold for standing out there for 6 hours. Before leaving, I had to snap some photos of the landscape surrounding us. The sun and halo around it looked absolutely fantastic, like something out of Hoth from Star Wars. I’ll never forget the feeling of looking off into that distance and seeing nothing. Walking in that direction in those conditions would mean almost certain death.

Sun in Freezing Fog – WAIS

12/13/2019 – 12/14/2019 PCWS Board Update

It’s been a while since I’ve made any blog entries. The last couple weeks have mostly consisted of troubleshooting our PCWS board and normal McMurdo life. This post will focus primarily on a challenge I’ve faced with the hardware of the PCWS Datalogger. Things have been eventful for the grant. Since I’ve finished the SPI interface code for our master processor to talk to our ADS1258 analog to digital converters, I’ve found a problem with the analog to digital converter hardware and come up with a solution. Lee and I had been testing PRT, Thermistor & RH sensors and found that our boards PRT values were 1-2 degrees Celsius higher, and Thermistors almost 8 degrees Celsius lower, than the CR1000s values. The CR1000 is a datalogger made by Campbell Scientific. It viewed as the standard to compare our measurements. PRT and Thermistor sensor measurements come down to a voltage measurement across two points. Those voltages can then be put into equations to generate temperatures.

After lots of troubleshooting the PRTs and Thermistors, and not understanding why the PRTs temperature values were significantly offset than the Thermistors output values, I moved on to testing the HMP155 Relative Humidity sensor. This is also an analog sensor measured in a similar way to PRTs and Thermistors. The values outputted by it were spot on with the CR1000, and with the Thermistors. After looking at the schematic of the PRT and the internal circuitry of the HMP155A, the PRT and Thermistor offset problem made some sense. The HMP155 uses circuitry and an operational amplifier buffer to generate its analog output signal. PRTs and Thermistors generate their output signals through a parallel combination across special resistors, whose resistance varies with temperature. The ADS1258’s channel input impedance is only 65k ohm, which I theorized was causing a parallel resistor combination / voltage divider between PRT or Thermistors load resistors and the channels input impedance. Resistors in parallel combination create a lower total resistance than each by itself. Lower total resistance seen from the analog to digital converter might have been causing a lower analog output voltage measurement across the load resistor. As a consequence, the sensor impedance value calculated was increased, possibly causing the offset in values I was seeing.

PRT & Thermistor Values with offset

          After coming up with this, I calculated and inputted the new impedance values (channel impedance in parallel with load resistor) into the PRT & Thermistor resistance equations. During testing, the both sensor values ranged between a half degree Celsius of each other. This was close, but still a half degree to 1 degree Celsius higher offset than the CR1000. I had seen in the ADS1258 datasheet that engineers use operational amplifiers to create a high impedance input and low impedance output voltage follower for the sensor signal before measuring. This is a way to measure a relatively un-modified voltage because it changes the impedance seen from the sensor. The way this works is based on the how parallel resistors work. For example, if you have a 10k ohm resistor in parallel with another 10k ohm resistor, the new total resistance is 5k ohm. However, if you have a 10k ohm resistor in parallel with a 1 million ohm resistor, the new total resistance is 9900 ohms. The 1 million ohm resistor does not cause much change in the overall resistance of the circuit, because the same amount of current will pass through the 10k resistor, and very little through the 1 million ohm resistor. The total current between the two is nearly the same.  Now think of the operational amplifier as a 1 million ohm resistor in parallel with the “10k resistor” sensor. The operational amplifier subtracts very little to the total effective resistance across the sensor being measured, so the voltage across it also changes very little. The output of the operational amplifier should then be close to equal to actual voltage across the sensor and this output is driven directly into the analog to digital converter at a low impedance. Now the circuit seen from the analog to digital converter becomes two series resistors: the operational amplifiers output impedance (very low) and the analog to digital converters input impedance (relatively high). Resistors in series will see the most voltage across the resistors with higher resistance. Because of this, most of the voltage drop I am looking for is then seen across the channels input impedance, creating an accurate sensor measurement at the moment of analog to digital conversion.

Now I had a new problem: I’m 7,000 miles from Wisconsin, with no way to immediately test my theory. There was no way I could get a parcel shipped here in time, and I couldn’t wait for our other researcher Taylor to arrive in Antarctica Dec 30th to begin testing. I might have been screwed. Luckily, I had been talking to Lee about this at the time Jim Buckley from Super Tiger was in the room speaking with IT. He overheard my conversation and jumped in to offer help. I told him the situation and asked him what he thought. He said my idea was solid, and that he might be able to bring some spare instrument op-amps from LDB the next day. I then started researching into op-amp configurations and analyzing their behaviors in as many datasheets so I could properly troubleshoot a circuit when I would build one. The next day, Lee ran into Jim at lunch. Jim passed him the op-amps and an Arduino SOIC fan out breadboard, then Lee gave them to me later that day in the lab. Jim gave us two OPA-787s, and two AD8667s. Both of these are high-end JFET input instrument op-amps. The AD8667 seemed more suitable of the two because comes with a dual package (2 in 1 chip) and is stable in unity-gain (1 to 1 input to output gain) with no feedback resistor. This simplicity made testing in the lab with limited resources much easier.

            It was now time to build the circuit. I soldered one AD8667 to the Arduino SOIC fan out board, setup the circuit configuration I drew out, and gator clipped a sensor to the input. I hooked in the 5V power to the a 5V power terminal on the PCWS board and watched the sensor input and op-amp output with an oscilloscope. It was spot on. With that test complete, I soldered in the inputs and outputs into the PCWS board, updated the code with the original sensor impedance, ran code, and watched my computers terminal. The values seemed reasonable! I then asked Lee to hook up the thermistor to the CR1000 and verify its values. The new values were within 0.1 degree Celsius of the CR1000. I had done it! This had proven that the ADS1258 analog to digital converters lower input impedance was in-fact effecting the measurement of the sensors output voltage.

            The next day, Lee and I called Andy to talk about this new development. He advised me to draw up a schematic in PADS and make a bill of materials, then he would make a PCB board layout and ship them down with Taylor. Andy suggested if the boards included terminals connected to the inputs and outputs, we could then easily wire in the necessary leads with little effort. I emailed the design to Andy, then he found parts, created the PCB and submitted the board order on rush order to Pro-Active Engineering. Now I must wait for Taylor to arrive, and I’m praying that everything works as it has in the lab. This is the only solution to the ADS1258s input impedance problem.

11/28/19 Willie Field APS Dig

Happy Thanksgiving! For the first time since I’ve arrived here, I’ve taken a day off. I don’t exactly have regular hours – I‘ve been working around 8 to 14 hours per day depending on what time I wake up and leave Crary. It’s midnight as I’m writing this at the lab. I spent most of yesterday watching movies and doing laundry. Laundry machine use, detergent and dryer sheets are all free. I went on a nonstop Bonanza marathon and laid low most of the day. At the end of the day, I topped it off with a glass of Laphroaig Triple Wood, a fancy bottle of single malt scotch I bought back in Christchurch. It’s basically like drinking liquid smokey wood.

Today, I started my day off pretty normally with no expectations of doing anything but coding and troubleshooting in the lab. I’ve been focused on getting SPI reception code written for the PCWS datalogger lately. Once I can talk to the ADS1258’s and retrieve their data samples on command, the rest of this code will be a piece of cake. By the time I showed up at Crary around 11am, Lee had already taken off for a second Tall Tower visit with the National Geographic film crew. They probably had him walking back and forth between the plane and the tower 50 times again. Back at the lab, Scott and Mark were gearing up to pull their APS weather station at Willie Field. I’ve been interested in their project, so when Scott asked if I’d like to join them to help dig, I had no objections. Plus, it feels great to get outside for a bit. We checked out an Amtrak F-350, loaded it with tools, and set out for Willie Field. On arrival, we met up with Thomas Nylen, a technician from UNAVCO, and began digging for the APS’s power supply buried below 4 feet of snow. There were thirty, 72lb, 12V lead-acid car batteries total to dig out. Yikes. Although a lot of work, we really lucked out on the weather again. Today was 25 degrees with no wind and sunny skies. I had brought my heavy jacket, coon hat, ski gloves and ECW boots, but most of it ended up being left in the truck. I was digging in a sweatshirt, hiking boots, and my light Sitka gloves no problem.

The snow in Antarctica is the kind of crispy, medium weight, compacted snow you see in the middle of January in Wisconsin winters. Even though it wasn’t the heaviest lifting – digging a 6ft wide, 5ft long and 4ft deep hole was a heck of a workout. Around noon the New Zealand Antarctica University of Auckland students showed up to check out the APS, AWS and PCWS towers. They were led by Dr. Adrian McDonald, and a field guide. They brought shovels and were happy to help us dig out 2 of the 3 towers as we worked on the power supplies. Around 3 o clock, we all gathered around Mark. He gave a 30-minute presentation on his APS system at this particular site as well as the history behind it. 

Around 7 o clock, we were starting to get hungry. The New Zealand group had left, and we still had digging to do. The galley doesn’t serve after 7pm, so pizza was on the menu. Scott and I then drove the Amtrak back to base. On arriving, I ran up to the galley and ordered a couple pizzas: meat lovers and veggie. The pizzas would be ready in about 20 minutes. I ran back down to Crary and unloaded some more batteries and tower sections with Scott. By this time, our pizzas were now ready. We drove the Amtraks back to the galley, I ran in and picked them up, and we set back off for Willie field. The pizza smelled super good on the way there. Pizza in McMurdo is not bad. I’d say it’s comparable to Dominos but with lighter toppings and less greasy sauce.

Thomas from UNAVCO eating delivery pizza on the ice

Arriving back to Willie, we popped the tailgate down and chowed. It had been a long day in the field, so getting some hot food felt great. As we were eating, Scott pointed out that Minna Bluff was starting to get foggy. This usually means that winds are approaching, and it’s time to start thinking about packing up. We finished up our food and went back to digging. Mark and I both worked tirelessly on digging on the last of the 3 towers, rocking it back and forth to break it free from the frozen snow before finally lifting it out. We were now finished with the digging, and our focus now shifted to cleaning up. The winds were now getting close. Losing sight of Black Island meant that we had about a half hour to 45 minutes to leave. We cut the rest of the tower guidewires anchored beneath the snow, packed the bamboo flags signaling where the system is located, grabbed our tools, loaded up the freed tower sections, and drove back to base. About 10 minutes after we got to base, the winds picked up and visibility went way down. Just in time! We celebrated our successful dig by grabbing some drinks at Gallaghers, and then I made my way back to Crary where I am now. 

11/22/19 Cape Hallett

This blog post will be somewhat long for the norm. Today was a very action-packed day and there are a lot of details I’ll try to put into this post to give a feel for how awesome todays mission to Cape Hallett was. Enjoy!

Today my team was Primary Pax (Passengers) on a 4-hour Twin Otter flight to Cape Hallett. Our mission was to service a non-transmitting AWS station. Cape Hallett is located along on a small peninsula along northern cost of Antarctica, near the edge of the Transantarctic Mountains. Even though the weather didn’t look very permittable from the models last night, we still reported to Crary Phase II just in case things changed. But first, I needed to load up on food for the day. The only food in the field is the food you bring with you, so it’s definitely best to leave on a full stomach and pack a lunch/dinner. Once in galley, I grabbed breakfast; scrambled eggs with sausage, hash browns, and a glass of OJ. This is pretty typical McMurdo breakfast food. I began checking the flight schedule screen for our flight. I was looking for KBX (Ken Borek Air) which initially was listed as TBD. Around 6:45am the schedule updated, and my flight read as ACTIVATED. ACTIVATED meant I needed to finish up in the galley immediately and head back to Crary Phase II for pickup at 7:30am. There, I met up with my PI Lee Welhouse, and two scientists from the Antarctic Precipitation System team: Dr. Scott Landolt and Dr. Mark Seefeldt. After putting on our ECW gear and packing our equipment in our shuttle, we were taxied off in a shuttle to Williams Field. Williams Field (aka. Willie Field) is one of two main airfields closest to McMurdo and the Kiwi Scott Base, the other being Phoenix Airfield. Approaching our Twin Otter, we passed three LC-130’s parked in a line along the runway, and a DC3-T Basler parked near a service building. The Basler is a seriously awesome plane to look at. The Basler is a turboprop converted and airframe reinforced Douglas DC-3, an old WW2-era commercial airliner & utility aircraft. In Antarctica, the Baslers are fitted with skis beside it’s landing gear to allow for ice/snow landings. We were dropped off next to our Twin Otter, which was already fueled and ready to go. Twin turbopropped and lightweight, the Twin Otter’s high rate of climb, and short take off / landing capability make it an excellent candidate for small fixed wing team operations. Unlike the Basler, the Twin Otter can easily take off and land on ungroomed areas such as ice shelves. After loading up a small collapsible ladder, a couple duffle bags, survival kits, tools, spare parts, and our gear, we took off. Initially there was some turbulence but once we broke through the boundary layer things began to smooth out.

Getting ready to take off in the Twin Otter

We were expected to arrive at a fuel station in Tera Nova in about an hour and a half. Initially, we flew over the Ross Island Ice Shelve. It was a very different change of scene to McMurdo. Off the right side of the plane (looking northwest), the area was very desolate looking, almost like an abyss of ice. The only discernable patterns were the scrapes in the snow that wind took onto the surface and the occasional ice chunk. The skies and air were clear, giving vision to the distant horizon which was almost all flatness. The plains to the right transitioned into more rugged terrain, then a mixture of small crevasses, hills and rocky islands dispersed through-out the ice tundra. Next, we flew over a rugged coastline where the ice shelf was breaking off into sea. Large circular chunks of ice could be seen floating about. The chunks became smaller and smaller as we cleared distance from the shelf, eventually opening up to the Ross Sea. I was slightly nervous flying over frigid open water in such a small plane. The fact was that if something were to go wrong and we went down – we would basically all be dead no matter what. At the same time though, at least we’re in Antarctica living the dream.

As we started to re-approach the mainland/ice shelf, things became super photographic. Off the left side of the plane, the peaks and valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains could be seen. The Transantarctic Mountains are a massive mountain range dividing East from West Antarctica, extending along the Ross Sea, to nearly the most northern end of Antarctica. We flew along this landscape until we arrived at Tera Nova, an air strip / fuel station near the Italian base, Mario Zucchelli Station. Once landing, we hopped off the plane where we were greeted by the Italians operating a fuel truck and several vehicles. After 20 minutes of chatting and photo taking, we exchanged Madison College / UW-Madison stickers with them and were on our way again.

Once we took off and levelled at altitude, I took the opportunity to crawl over our equipment and up to cockpit. In front of us, I could see more mountain range incoming. We were cruising along at 135 knots, at about 5800 feet. After a short interview with the pilot and co-pilot of the controls and gauges, I sat back down and closed my eyes for a bit. We still had two hours to go. 30 minutes later, I woke up to my ears popping. I looked out the window and realized we were starting to increase our altitude, and we were horizontally getting closer and closer to the mountains. We began making way up a cliff, then into a mountain valley where we were skimming across the air only a thousand feet or so above the rocks below. On both sides of the plane, the mountain peaks towered above. Shears of ice, smooth glistening snow, and deep blue crevasses covered the surface below. It was absolutely unreal at how beautiful the scene was. All of the environment had to have been completely untouched by man, if only being only the product of the forces of nature. No camera could do this place justice.

Twenty minutes later the valley opened up into a much wider area of sea ice, with mountains and cliffs diverging far to our right and left. In front of us we could once again see a large ice shelf extending as far into the Ross Sea. We passed over a peninsula where I recognized the area from satellite imagery that I looked at last week. We had finally arrived at Cape Hallett. Taking a closer look, I could make out six tents and a small grey structure near the cliffside. We circled the area three times, making low 10-20ft passes on the second and third rounds. The pilots were observing the surface of the sea ice looking for a smooth place to land. The landing was surprisingly smooth. How little space needed for the Twin Otter to land in is pretty remarkable. We stopped near a glacier about a half mile from the weather station. 

On landing, a man in a green jacket on a snowmobile parked about 100 feet away and began speaking on his radio. We weren’t really sure who it was at the time, since the recent satellite imagery we had seen hadn’t showed the camp. As we were unloading our cargo, he drove up to us and we introduced ourselves. He was very kind, and part of a Korean research team who was studying penguin behavior on the peninsula. Cape Hallett is home to an Adélie Penguin colony, medium sized predatory birds called Skuas, and a diverse mix of lichens and mosses. The area is protected under the Antarctic Treaty as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), and requires special permits to enter. As we walked towards the station approximately a half mile away, we kept our distance to the rocky peninsula where the penguins were hanging out. Even so, some of them were still curious and meandered over to check us out. As Scott had said, the Adélies have a very inquisitive expression about them; they would wander up to within 20 feet of us, turn to their side with their flappers out, watch us for a few moments, then turn around and casually waddle way. They seemed to have no fear at all, probably because they have no natural predators on land. It seemed like they were just curious and thinking “what are those things?”. I suppose they are just used to never seeing anything except fish, seals and skuas. 

The weather station at Cape Hallett had been failing to transmit its data since last year. After inspecting the exterior of the tower, we adjusted the angles of a couple sensors to their normal positions and opened up the protective box housing the CR1000 system inside. The CR1000 is a robust datalogger manufactured by Campbell Scientific, which is the heart of the weather tower system. This device is responsible for taking weather measurements from sensors, storing the data, and ultimately transmitting the data via an Iridium satellite transmitter. 

We then began troubleshooting the system. We first interfaced with the CR1000 by opening a comm port and monitoring its programming. Nothing appeared to be wrong there. We then interfaced with the Iridium modem. By sending the modem the command “SBDIX=” and giving it dummy data, we can tell the modem to send the dummy data to the satellite “GSS” and also receive a status byte in return. By reading this status byte, we can look up the code in a datasheet to determine if the transmission was successful, or if some fault occurred. It gave us a “34” which meant the radio was not enabling. In response, we sent it an “AT*R1” to force enable its radio. The device then locked up and wouldn’t respond to further commands. We tried resetting the power to the device, and enabling the radio again, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Lee then made the call to replace the modem with a new one and retry a transmission. We hooked up a new modem and sent another SBDIX. It didn’t work initially. I then mentioned we should try clearing the modems buffer. We sent it an “AT+SBDD” to modems mobile buffer. Then, after another transmission retry, we were successful. We then packed up and prepared to leave. We were running low on time, and unfortunately didn’t have time to sit down with the Koreans, but we were still able to give them stickers and wish each other well.

After loading up, we took off back to Tera Nova for fuel. Once back in Tera Nova, the pilots informed us that some weather was brewing to our south and was going to hit McMurdo. We could see the dark clouds and low visibility from the airstrip, which made us slightly apprehensive. We fueled up and watched a Basler land on the ice airstrip, then took off for McMurdo. The way back was hands-down the roughest plane ride I’ve ever had in my life. With 35mph gusts head-on and up/down drafts tossing our plane, our hour and a half ride ended up being two hours. Both Mark and Lee became sick, and even now I still have the spins like I just spent a day on the scrambler at six flags. We were happy to eventually land, and very thankful that we have skillful pilots who know how to handle those situations.


11/19/2019 – Pressure Ridge Tour

The constant intense sunlight is starting to affect my energy levels a bit. I’ve noticed that even though I get a full 6-8hrs of sleep, it really feels like I’m taking power naps. Waking up at 7am every morning I am pretty wiped out by 2-3pm. Since I usually work until 11pm, I’ve found that taking a short nap around this time really helps. My theory is that the exposure to sunlight tens of minutes before going to sleep puts myself into a “nap” mode versus a deeper sleep mode. I’ve been told it will take some time to fully adjust.

Today was eventful. I woke up and took a shower, then headed back to my room. Turning the door handle I realized that I had locked myself out of my room. Great. After knocking on the RA’s door and not getting a response, I finally sprinted across the military complex to building 155 in my underwear to get a replacement key. It didn’t actually feel that cold, as the sunlight was so intense.

After lunch, Lee and I headed to the flight ops building to be issued our groups iridium phone and VFH radios. These are primarily used to communicate with MacOps (short for McMurdo Operations) during our tower service missions. Later in the evening I completed my Outdoor Safety Lecture. OSL allows me to participate in recreational activities around McMurdo such as hiking, biking, and skiing. The lecture focused on following flagged paths, avoiding crevasses, familiarizing with the trail systems around McMurdo, communicating with MacOps, and observing the weather for changing conditions.

An hour after the lecture, I grabbed my issued ECW gear and headed to the galley I had signed up for a tour of Pressure Ridge, an ice formation within driving distance of McMurdo. With Jesse as our tour guide, and the National Geography team to accompany, we hiked a flagged path on top of the sea ice. At first, we walked around the formations to view them from the outside. Our guide explained that the ice ridges are caused by a combination of ice expansion and contraction with heat, and the wind pushing the sea ice up to land. The sea ice in this area was around 6-8ft thick.

A third way through the tour, we began to approach a “pod” of seals. We were allowed to get as close as 30 feet away for photography, and the seals didn’t seem to mind one bit. They just chilled where they were, occasionally looking over at us before resting their head back on the ice. There were several pups resting next to their mothers. They were more curious than the adults, flopping themselves around in order to get in a better position to observe us. 

The last half of the tour we entered an opening in the sea ice ridges where we could get between some of the peaks. These ridges definitely showed the power of mother nature, with deep blue sea ice chunks 8 feet thick bulging out and bending in odd curved shapes. The formations reminded me of a time when my friend Drew Foster, my dad, and I were ice fishing on red lake a few years back. We drove across Upper Red Lake to visit Drews uncle Jimmy’s place, then came across some pretty awesome pressure ridges caused by high winds on the lake.

Ice Spiral on Pressure Ridge Tour

11/17/19-11/18/19 BFC Party & Science Lecture

This post will be the combination of yesterday and today. My mandatory training is complete, and I’m able to spend more time in the labs writing software. I’m currently working on writing SPI (Serial Port Interface) code to talk to our 24-bit ADS1258 analog to digital converters. Analog to Digital Converters (ADCs) are precision voltage measurement devices that convert an input voltage to a digital number which can be used for digital processing. For example, the ST-110 thermistors we use to measure temperature are given a known reference voltage. The resistance of the thermistor changes with temperature based on a given equation from the manufacturer. By measuring the voltage output from the voltage divider created between the Thermistor and a 24,900 ohm resistor with an analog to digital converter, we can calculate can the temperature of the thermistor. This is generally the idea of measurement with all analog output sensors.

Last night was a blast. After 4 beers and a glass of scotch each, Aurora and I decided to go hiking up observation hill at 10:30pm Saturday night. It didn’t exactly happen that way though. We had no map and neither of us had taken survival training, so we had no idea where the trail even was. We walked around looking for a bit, and after a while we decided to turn back. On the way back, we stumbled on a group of people standing outside the BFC Outdoor Equipment Center. We thought they might have a better idea than us, so we walked up to them and asked if they knew where the trail was. While standing there talking, we couldn’t help but notice the throw-back early 2000’s pop music blasting in the background. We asked what was going on and were immediately invited inside. All of the windows were blacked out, the lights were off, and people were in robes and party cloths all around. We definitely looked out of place with our huge “big red” jackets and all of our winter gear. We threw our gear on a rack and started wandering around. Suddenly Lee appeared out of nowhere and “congratulated” us on finding the party. He told us the real party was upstairs, and we should go check it out. In the stairwell, there was an ice sculpture. We had no idea what it was, but it was really neat. Upstairs, we didn’t expect there to be a full-on dance floor with people jumping around to music, Christmas lights hanging from the walls and ceiling, and an open bar serving beer and wine. At some point late in the night Aurora and I followed a group of people out to the Science Support Center, where another party was taking place. The song Lean On Me – Bill Withers was playing when we got there, and at least 40 people doing a kick line in a huge circle to it. It was like something straight out of a college frat party. I never expected there to be legit parties in McMurdo! We danced until 2 or 3am, then got pizza in the galley. I remember making fun of Aurora by insisting that there was an M & M hidden in every picture on the walls of the galley, because the artist really liked M & M’s. The whole night turned out to be a great time. I thought Antarctica would be this refined research station full of boring people who only know their work, but I was definitely wrong. This place is awesome.

Now for today’s news. I attended a science lecture in the galley at 8pm today. The Automatic Precipitation Station grant, composed of Principal Investigator Mark Seefeldt and Co-Principal Investigator Scott Landolt, focused on the pros and cons of precipitation sensor design, snow accumulation rates in various places, and the measurement methods of sublimation. Their APS system is sort of like a drum, which terminates conically to a 6” opening at the top. The drum is positioned vertically, so the opening faces the sky. The idea is that snow falls into the drum through the opening, and the mass can be determined and converted back to a liquid volume. The trick to measuring snow precipitation is to ensure that winds do not blow snow into the drum, trapping excess snow and erroneously increasing the mass in the measurement. The APS team has spent years developing methods to protect the drum. Their latest design utilizes flaps arranged in a large ring around the barrel that deflect wind. This allows snow to freely fall into the drum.

Another study the APS team researched was on sublimation. Sublimation is the phase transition of matter in solid phase, directly into a gaseous phase. This commonly occurs on mountain sides where the sun shines at a more perpendicular angle to the surface. At low temperatures, sunlight gives snow (solid state water molecules) a chance to absorb enough energy to break their intermolecular forces and sublimate. Inside the drum, without sunlight, this occurs at a lesser but still measurable degree. By measuring small decreases in the liquid water mass of the snow in the drum over time, the rate of sublimation can be calculated. This rate of sublimation can then be correlated to effects such as temperature and humidity.

Tomorrow should be a pretty busy day for Lee and I. We have meetings with flight ops to discuss our upcoming plans to day trip to Cape Hallett. We also have a meeting with helo ops to talk about other future plans. We are loosely planning to visit 20 locations in Antarctica, many of which are only accessible by aircraft.