Journal Entry 17 November

"Running For A Plane"

Preamble:      What's my next project all about?

I'm slightly older, fatter, grayer, not necessarily any wiser, but I now have three seasons of measurements of carbon particulates in Antarctica: and the basic result is that despite the extremely pristine nature of the Antarctic 'natural background' atmosphere, the manner in which human activities are conducted there leads to substantial and sometimes excessive concentrations of fumes and smoke in the living and working environment. Some of these emissions and human exposures are inevitable, some of them could be reduced or mitigated if anybody cared. For the most part, they don't or can't care, it's part of the experience of being on The Ice. Most of the contract workers are young and macho, most of the managers are older and macho: all are trying to meet tough goals under harsh conditions and a little bit of smoke in the air ain't gonna slow them down. If the C-130's belch exhaust because their turbines are of an old design, well, the brown cloud over Williams Field at McMurdo will blow away soon enough. If tractor fumes get trapped inside the dome at Pole, well, the doctor has already learned to keep all gauze and bandages and supplies in ziplock bags, because everything gets covered with a thin film of soot. Until recently, our operations in Antarctica had been essentially run by the US Navy: when planes land at Pole, they are announced as being "on deck"; and folks eat in the "galley". Environmental awareness, either as impact on the natural world or in terms of health for the occupants, wasn't on the list at all, until some pesky liberals put stuff into the Antarctic Treaty. Now, to everyone's credit, the recycling of waste materials from Antarctica is a model for the rest of the world: everything that is thrown away is separated, sorted, and returned to the US by ship. The seafloor of McMurdo Bay has been dredged to retrieve the garbage that was simply pushed into the water in years past. If a full bottle of tequila makes it to Pole, then, after the margaritas are poured, the empty bottle will begin an equally-long journey North. (Philosophically, this is an astounding waste of resources in terms of transportation, a 12000-mile roundtrip for a glass bottle, but the living and working environment at Pole warrants keeping the people happy.)

So there's less trash in Antarctica, and that's extremely good. But what about the smoke? Where does it go and what effect might it have?

Because of the extremely 'clean' natural background conditions in Antarctica, even a little bit of pollution can go a long way. In a very quiet concert hall, even the tiniest noise can be heard. Relative to the natural background, the amount of smoke discharged by the diesel power station at Pole increases the concentration of smoke to a level of 3 times the background (i.e. detectable, but just barely), over an area as large as Switzerland. One chimney, Switzerland. And when an aircraft is "on deck" with its engines idling for an hour, the cloud of brown kerosene smoke covers one-eighth of the horizon. But the dispersed concentration is so small, and the environment of pure ice is so inert, that it's unlikely to have any effect.

Down at McMurdo, there's a lot more smoke generated locally. The diesel generators are larger, there are more vehicles, and a lot more aircraft activity.  More to the point, there's biological life there. It's very likely that some of the toxic organic compounds of diesel smoke will get into the food chain, into the seals and penguins and into the marine environment. Not good - but active metabolisms can at least break down those compounds. The processes of life can deal with a little bit of poison, that's why we have livers, and because there are livers, God created onions, which are good.  McMurdo is not a unique environment, much of the rest of the Antarctic coast is similar. If we have created a tiny cesspool, it's a pimple on a large face. If a couple of penguins cough, there are lots more of them elsewhere.

However ..

Less than a hundred miles away from McMurdo Base are the 'Dry Valleys'.  These are an ice-free environment, a polar desert surrounded by high mountains that keep the glaciers at bay. They are almost unique on our planet: extremely cold, dry, devoid of conventional 'soil' nutrients - yet when the sun warms the gravel in 24-hour summer, tiny organisms thaw out, live in slow motion, constantly cold and starving, and freeze-dry again when the sun dips below the mountaintops for 6 months of winter. The king of the food chain, the lion of this environment, is a nematode, a tiny worm that is barely visible. But if these lichens and microbes and microlions can exist here, under these conditions of no food, no water and no warmth, then it is hypothesized that life may be able to exist on Mars, where the conditions are similar.

Naturally, scientists want to learn more about "Mars-On-Earth". So what do we do and how do we get there?

We fly in by helicopter. Ever seen the smoke coming out of a helicopter?
Until recently, we powered the camps with diesel generators, and heated them with oil stoves.
We drill into the ice with two-cycle (oil and gasoline) portable engines. Ever seen the blue smoke coming out of a Vespa motorscooter?

Now the ecosystems of the Dry Valleys do indeed metabolize, but at a glacial pace. (pun intended). What takes a day of biological activity in temperate latitudes may take a year or a century under those conditions. There are the carcasses of seals that wandered in from the coast and died: carbon dating shows that the bones are thousands if not tens of thousands of years old. Everything is preserved by the cold and dryness and lack of busy microorganisms to eat stuff up. If I drop a piece of cheese onto the ground, it will still be there long after our present civilization has been replaced.  Were I to wander off and perish, unnoticed, my mummy clad in red ECW's with its attendant Leatherman Wave tool jewellery would be displayed in museums ten millennia hence, unexplained.

Now what happens if we blow helicopter exhaust and diesel fumes into this environment? Whatever does happen, will be ongoing for a really long time. Unlike garbage, you can't pick up smoke and take it away. If these organisms are living under such highly-stressed conditions, spraying them with benzopyrene (a known toxic and carcinogen in diesel exhaust) may be all it takes to extinguish the tiny glowworm of life. And the benzopyrene won't "go away". If you spill gasoline on the ground at home, it will be metabolized, leached, reduced and generally dissipated by biological activity in the soil in a period of months or years at most. Spill oil on the ground in the Dry Valleys, and it will be there for your Egyptian descendants.  Pass water behind a rock, and the nitrogen impact in that yellow spot will last almost for ever.

My project for the next 3 seasons will be to set up aethalometer instruments to measure any smoke that there may be in the Dry Valleys' atmosphere arising from local operations such as helicopters, diesel generators, fuel burning etc. I am very explicitly not an expert at predicting any environmental impact, or the ecological consequences of the presence of smoke: my expertise lies in measuring the smoke and telling people that it's there. I will take an instrument down with me and set it up near the camp in a location to try to catch a representative sample of both camp and helicopter operations: the aethalometer will run automatically for the rest of the season, and be returned next February or so.

But first, I gotta get there


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I started my preparations almost a year in advance, figuring out how to set out an instrument on its own in the middle of a freezing cold desert, on the end of a half-mile extension cord, and then leave it to run unattended for 4 months. Power consumption was a real concern: there's very little electricity at Lake Hoare and I can't be allowed to hog it by simply carrying down 'conventional' equipment that you'd use in a lab at home from a wall outlet. This is the stuff of engineering, the challenge and satisfaction of defining the requirements, determining the specifications, getting the best components to do the job. Gradually the concept formed, a large black 'transit case' like a foam-insulated coffin. Ship it down on the plane, drag it out of the helicopter, and simply leave it on the ground with the instrument inside, kept warm by its own small internal power usage. At the end of the season, close the lid and send it home.

My son Christopher helps me, and learns about duct tape.

My son learns about Duct Tape

August.  I go for my dental examination: they don't want anyone in Antarctica suddenly needing a root-canal job. I go for my physical examination: blood, urine, and the latex-glove inspection specific to men that brings tears to your eyes and reminds you that you've really been to the doctor's. All seems OK. I file my travel request and my support-services request. I'm on track, the preparations accumulate so slowly it's almost imperceptible. I go up to the attic and bring down the box marked 'Cold Weather Clothing'. I have the checklist from last time, what I took, what I needed more or less of. Long underwear, turtleneck shirts, flannel-lined jeans. Check.  Teabags.

Two weeks away, call Travel to confirm my tickets.

"We don't have all your medical, we need some more tests before you can be PQ'd. (Physically Qualified).
WHAT !! You don't have all my medical stuff !! I did that months ago.
"Well, we don't have it, you'd better go to a lab and have some more blood drawn, get them to fax us the results right away.

One week away.

"You're over 45. You've got to have a Cardiac Stress Test"
WHAT !! I've been over 45 for 4 years, since before my first trip to Pole !! I didn't have to do a stress test then !
"Our requirements show that you have to do the test. Get them to fax us the results so we can PQ you, otherwise we can't issue the tickets.

So I work the yellow pages. 'I need an exercise stress test right away - do you have an appointment time open? Today??' . Finally I find a clinic that does - if I can get there immediately. Drive drive freeway speed limit traffic off-ramp parking lot.  Stress.

In my underwear I look a lot less like a rugged Antarctic hero, a lot more like a middle-aged engineer in underwear.
"Smoke?" - no. "Drink?" - yes, couple of beers. "Regular Exercise Program?" - no. "Sports?" - no.

Clipboard entry = Sedentary White Male.

Wires attached and I step onto the belt of the treadmill. The pert, young lab technician jock looks at my 38-inch waistline, my physique so well-adapted to the slow movements of cold weather, so well endowed with subcutaneous insulation, and tells me brightly: "We're going to run it gradually faster and up a steeper grade while we monitor your heart functions. Just let me know when you want to stop. OK?
I feel sure that she has a handcart in a closet, one of those 'refrigerator carts' that includes the webbing strap for securing the load, to wheel me off to the ER when I expire gasping.

It starts.  A stroll - but a relentless stroll.
"No problem Mr. Hansen, you're doing fine.

The machine whirs, the grade steepens.  Now I'm hastening.
"Keep going, you're doing fine.

Another increment. Pit pat pit pat pit pat.
"Are you OK?
- yes I'm fine thanks, it's kind of like running for a plane -    I answer as I visualize hustling through Chicago airport, a depressingly frequent occurrence.

And it occurs to me - I am running for a plane.   I've got to pass this test before I can go to Antarctica.   I am running for a plane.

The treadmill machine steps up another increment of speed and grade.  I'm sweating.  I'm not a jogger or a tennis jock, I'm a weekend carpenter.  But the damning evidence is in the traces on the EKG, there's nothing I can do by willpower to change the outcome.  Run.  Stride.  Pump.  Breathe.  Run to get that plane.

The machine speeds up again, the traces leap on the screen.

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Run to get that plane .....

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