Day Five: Sticking my Head in a Chimney

Journal Entry:
At the South Pole
Wednesday Feb. 5

Yesterday (Tuesday) was relatively uneventful: I finished my installation at the New Clean Air building, and unpacked and prepared everything for the aircraft-exhaust sampling project. On my shelves in Berkeley I'd had a very old aethalometer, one that I hand-made in 1987 that had been returned after a project. This was a good opportunity: I could modify it to work at a high flow rate and give data every 5 seconds. The plan was to drive back and forth in a truck at different distances behind the aircraft, with the equipment on the back seat and power from a generator in the rear. The equipment was all OK, and it ran fine in the lab when unpacked and set up.

The next morning (Wednesday), I had to get up early to meet Harry to get started. Thus, I set my alarm clock, and programmed my brain to respond. My alarm clock is the type that starts quietly: Bip-bip, bip-bip, bip-bip. Then, louder: Beep Beep, Beep Beep, Beep Beep. You probably know the kind. Well, so (evidently) did three other of the residents of my tiny sleeping building with barely-private concertina-partitioned cubicles. At 5:30: bip-bip, bip-bip, bip-bip. I awake instantly, not wanting to be late for my project. But it hadn't been *my* alarm: I hear shuffling noises in another cubicle, then the door to the outside opens and closes. At 6:15: bip-bip, bip-bip and the same instant-on. More shuffling, still not my turn, nor again. At last, it IS my turn to wake up, but I've done it three times already.

At breakfast, there are unidentified objects on a tray at the back. Flat, rectangular, sort of crispy-looking when seen from a distance. With great enthusiasm I ask brightly: "Are those spam fritters ?" The immediate silence is like a chemical-warfare attack: everybody in the vicinity gags.

"WHAT?".

"Spam fritters?" I suggest, more humbly, please?

Then the laughter begins. "Spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam" they sing from Monty Python.

"No really, are they?".

Now the hilarity begins. They have never even HEARD of spam fritters. I try to explain, but I have long lost all credibility. The items in question are lemon squares, slices of some sort of a flat cake. I try to creep away invisibly, but that is hard to do here.

After breakfast, Harry and I must set out marker flag poles in the snow, so that we will have a grid of lines to judge our distance when driving behind the plane. We take an armful of flags and a 200-foot measuring tape, and trudge out into the sunshine. It is 42 degrees below zero, 58 below with windchill. Starting at the point where the planes line up after taxi-ing in, we measure out 5 spans of 100 feet each, and plant flags. We then remember our Euclidean geometry and construct giant arcs in the snow with a larger radius, whose intersections give us a matching parallel line of flags. It takes a surprisingly long time: I am starting to get cold, since my clothing is selected for walking between buildings, not standing still on the end of a tape.

Now there is a problem: we have marked out two parallel rows of flags, but the runway is curved and so the rear flags are no longer to the side, but are right in the middle of the taxiway. We set up new pairs of flags, maintaining the correct alignment but moved off the runway. Now I am cold indeed.

Harry calls out: "Stand by those flags there, don't let any Cats (bulldozers) knock them down, I'm going back for some marking material".

I guard Harry's flags. I stand off the Cats like the famous image of the single Chinese man defying the tanks at Tiananmen Square. I get colder yet. I zip up everything that zips, tuck in everything that tucks. My mustache ices over from my exhaled breath, my cheeks burn, my goggles ice over, the fur rim of my parka hood grows ice. I cannot see: but I stand firm by my flag, and Heaven forbid that I should hear a nearby clanking sound. At last, a figure swims dimly into view through the hoar frost on my goggs. "Sorry it took me a while ......". To his credit, Harry has been very inventive: unable to find anything else, he has come back from the kitchen with a container of concentrated orange juice. Poured on the ground, it makes a clearly visible spot in the white snow. I relinquish my flag, creak off and eventually thaw out, feeling like something from an old Tom-and-Jerry cartoon.

We are ready just in time: we put the generator in the back of the truck, run the cord through the window to power the equipment, and push out a few feet of plastic tubing to the front of the truck's hood to collect the sample at the same height as a person breathing. The plane lands, roars down the runway to its appointed spot, and from our furthest distance of 500 feet we look right up the four turbine exhausts as the engines run.

It looks awful.

We start directly towards the plane: Harry is driving, and watching for the flag markers; Liza from Ops is in the front passenger seat with her radio, watching for Cats and keeping us out of trouble; I am in the back seat of the crew cab with the equipment.

As we get up to the plane, the BC (black carbon) numbers become HUGE.

No wonder they complain, no wonder they get medical symptoms. How much harder must one breathe at 13000 feet? The world of Cargo Hands is suddenly transformed from a romantic view of empowered women operating heavy equipment with skill and professionalism, into the same great job elsewhere on the station, but punctuated twice a day with a session in Jet Engine Hell.

And that, after all, is why I am here: this is the problem being addressed by the NSF program that approved my proposal. If there were no problem, I would never have had this opportunity; but now that I am here, I have to see it.

Thinking about my other professional observations of chimneys and exhausts, as a Soot Veteran would, my view of the Pole is now tarnished. The Beakers (scientists) set up state-of-the-art equipment in incredible clean new buildings overlooking the pristine Polar Plateau. Supporting them downwind, a brown-clad underclass toils in a partial vacuum filled with diesel fumes.


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Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 30 Jan 1997