Ice in My Boots

Journal Entry 2/2/98

A year has passed. I cannot forget Antarctica. In 1997, Jerry Marty told me something as I helped him fly flags at the Geographic Pole marker. Jerry is a senior NSF program official and has spent many, many seasons on the Ice. As we stood last year in a stiff breeze at 40 below zero, I asked him what kept bringing him back. What was it that I was feeling then, something reawakening from my past in the Far North? Jerry’s answer was direct and absolutely to the point. He said, simply, "The Ice gets in your boots. You can’t get it out".

Is it the cold itself? – or is it the challenge of living at an extreme? Do those whose work takes them to deserts feel the same about heat – do they feel a calling to the sting of dust? - or humidity for the Tropics, the steambath? I’m absolutely certain of it .. but for me, it’s kept in a box up in the attic marked ‘Cold Weather Clothing’. Just a cardboard box – but what a strong, silent song it sings. And I listen.

The project that I started last year is going well, monitoring the concentration of air pollution ‘Black Carbon’ particulates at the South Pole Station. Data is coming back by e-mail every two weeks. The aethalometers are working fine. The instrument upwind of the station is sampling the cleanest air that can be found on the planet: its measurements show BC concentrations as low as 0.1 to 0.01 of a nanogram per cubic meter. (for comparison, clean ocean-breeze air in Berkeley contains hundreds of nanograms after passing over the city; stagnant, hazy days build up to 10,000 nanograms or more). The second aethalometer at the South Pole is downwind of the exhaust from the station’s main generator plant. As the wind sweeps the exhaust plume past the sampling inlet, the instrument registers each waft of fumes as a giant concentration of particles. Correlation of the concentration in these wafts with wind speed and direction allows us to estimate the emissions from the station, part of the environmental impact assessment that will eventually be required by the Antarctic Treaty. The station technician assigned to the project has been doing a great job of keeping the equipment running, sending back periodic reports. Some re-supply was required; some preventive maintenance was advisable; some on-site assessment would be helpful.

But nothing enough per se to demand a deployment South; nothing that careful planning couldn’t have addressed .. until the phone rings.

It was Harry Mahar of NSF – a person whose name is corrected by my computer’s spell-checker to ‘Harry Mohair’. Harry is the NSF’s Safety, Environment and Health Officer, responsible for working conditions at the three U.S. bases in Antarctica. Harry and I had worked together last year on the problem facing aircraft cargo operations. At Pole, the aircraft must leave their engines running while the cargo-ops crew unloads the freight and reloads the retro shipment. The Caterpillar-tractor drivers and cargo handlers are working in the direct blast of kerosene engine exhaust – like manhandling heavy loads at 12000 feet altitude directly behind a school bus. In the Old Days, all logistics were handled by the U.S. military, and OSHA-like concerns were not on their radar screens. Orders were orders. A few years ago, civilian contract workers started taking over more and more functions, and the rules started to change. In the case of cargo-ops, ASA found that women were better Cat drivers than men, and last year it was the case that almost all of the Cargo-ops crew were young women .. young women of child-bearing age, being occupationally doused in kerosene fumes. Enter Harry Mohair, Man With A Mission.

Last year we used an aethalometer to map the concentrations of smoke behind the aircraft, to find the regions where it was a maximum. Of course, this was exactly where the people have to work, close in. Now Harry wants more information. I daydream. The phone rings. As in the classic gumshoe flicks, a gravelly voice grates "Hansen .. Tony Hansen? .. Dis is Harry Mohair. We Need More Information". We flash back to Patrick McGoohan as ‘The Prisoner’. I blink out of my daydream, we’re in the Nineties, did Sam Spade just contact me by e-mail?

I’m going to Antarctica again.


I depart on Saturday night, January 31. I will sleep one night on the plane. I will arrive on Monday morning, February 2. I will not have a February 1st. Will I pass ‘GO’, will I collect $200 ?

As if in a dream, I find myself at LAX, the quintessential Anonymous Airport in the Big Burb.

I have 5 heavy boxes, painted black, labeled ‘Do Not Freeze’. The Ice that was lurking in my boots is dragging me back down.

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Prepared by Tony Hansen, Garry Rose and Paul Babushkin.  Last edited 6 Feb. 1998