Saturday, 24 December 2011

A turn for the better.

My summer project is to run ESA?s LTMS3 equipment. It?s pretty smart,
really. ESA has designed thin, solid but very unobtrusive dry sensors
that clip into a t-shirt, one below each axilla and one that presses
onto the sternum. Together they record a two lead ECG continuously,
oxygen saturations with red and infrared light reflectance,
respiratory rate with impedance through the vest?s stretching,
accelerometry, heart rate, and it can add other things if necessary.
It all gets recorded onto a neat, seemingly bombproof datalogger
that?s light enough that you can forget it?s there. ESA is looking at
it as a prototype that can be developed in two ways; one, as a sensor
incorporated into a training space suit under development in Spain,
and the other as a circadian monitor for long term monitoring of
astronauts. What we?re doing with it here is a technical analysis,
to see how well it works and how well it?s tolerated in this very
hostile ecological setting. All I have to do is ask people to wear the
gear, and bring back the recordings to Europe. Although, I do have an
idea about looking at the data for a medical study, but that?s
secondary to the project aims we?re working with here.

But the software to operate the device has....died. Progressively,
bafflingly. On two separate computers. And so slowly that I wasted a
lot of time trying to figure out why what I did three weeks ago wasn?t
working properly one week later, and not working at all the week after
that. As I started the troubleshooting process with the Swiss
designers more and more problems developed. We have no idea what has
happened to it. And the thing about malfunctioning Antarctic
equipment, as many of the newly arrived scientists will tell you at
great length, is that life is not much fun until the problem is fixed
because time to collect data is so short here, you spend your every
waking minute trying to find a solution. Finally we decided to
abandon large aspects of the software and concentrate on whether it is
at least configuring the datalogger correctly to record. So I
transmitted some very short files ? 5 minute recordings - to
Switzerland for them to look at and I got the word back the other day
that they look good. So, this week I got back to setting up the
device on volunteers, and I?ll just take the raw data files back to
Europe with me. We just have to hope that they are good, as there is
no way out here to check a full-sized file. But, we have a plan and a
hardware system that appears to be working. It?s a relief.

One of the big deals of going from winter to summer is the
communication of all that happened, teaching new people how the base
works, and integrating everyone into a team that knows the important
stuff. And another big deal is perhaps that the old dogs don?t
respect enough that things will change with the new arrivals. Andrea
was very careful with regard to my nut allergy over the winter, there
was never a danger. Both the new chefs knew about it, but I should
have respected the risks with the changes. So, anyway, two weeks ago I
managed to have two anaphylactic reactions in 48 hours. It was OK, I
was only a minute away from the drugs to stop the reactions so they
didn?t get very far. But it does mess up your immune system ? already
deranged by the hypoxia here - for a while. The very next day a new
guy was moved into my room and I found him coughing and coughing later
that day. He?d developed laryngitis and stayed quiet about it until he
was safely installed in the station. I knew I was in for a rough time.
I?ve been coughing like crazy for two weeks, in that time most
people caught it and got better. So, my approval of communal living
has dropped a few points! And trying to fix the LTMS3 software
through all this, well, life for a while there seemed to be just a bit

In November we evacuated yet another case of HAPE down to MZS. And we
had another guy a week later, febrile with a sore throat a couple of
days after arriving here. Vincenzo, the base doctor treated him with
antibiotics. But 48-72h or so after, he dropped his saturations to 78
per cent, which is lower than normal for a new arrival here, but you
certainly don?t get a drop like that from a sore throat.
Interestingly, this guy had apparently developed fluid in his lungs
after developing a throat infection, and as a result his blood oxygen
levels were dropping. How much worse could it get? There was no way to
know, it depends on several unknowable factors, like how severe his
illness was at the cellular and biochemical level, how susceptible he
was to pulmonary oedema, and how fast he was acclimatising. Anyone
could have a threshold altitude at which they?d develop oedema at, and
there is no way to know how close they are to that threshold until
they cross it and become unwell. Or how easily circulating
inflammatory signals could tip the balance. We kept him here,
observed him and he got better, the crackles in his chest resolved.
Thinking about this when I realised I was getting unwell, I thought
that there is no way to know what could happen. So, just in case, I
worked through the night to organise and pack my data, samples and
equipment so that someone else could easily arrange the transfer of
all my year?s work if I had to leave the base. I knew it was likely
to be an overreaction, and that spending several hours in the cold was
not the best idea. But I know enough about this station to know that
when you need something organised, you?d better do it yourself! Or
your work could end up languishing here for a year until the next
summer campaign, and I really didn?t want to take that chance, however
small it seemed.
Anyway, everything is going the right way now. I?m just about back to
normal and I never had to stop work, thankfully. And my winter?s work
is all boxed up and ready to go, a little earlier than necessary. It?s
very nice to have that done.

Things are going well for the summer campaign now, too. All the
delayed scientific equipment has finally arrived and the scientific
teams are busily getting on with things. In working hours the base
seems almost deserted, now everyone can get on with their research.
The big OPALE study, a multidisciplinary team following on from the
EPICA work who have brought tonnes and tonnes of machines to analyse
gasses and radicals cycling between snow and atmosphere, is finally
up and running. Several other teams have already left the base, their
projects set up and running on automatic, or with one remaining to
keep an eye on it. Unfortunately one team had to leave before all
their equipment arrived and so they left without any data, but I think
that they took a risk on an unrealistically tight schedule. They
seemed fairly philosophical about it, anyway.

As the planes come and go they bring more and more friends from last
year, which is great. Our numbers are up to 80 now. But at the same
time the DC7 crew is thinning out. The Astrolabe should have arrived
in DDU by now, and will be departing again in a couple of days taking
four of the French guys with it. Ilann and Pascal left to go to DDU a
week ago - apparently Ilann has spent the time there helping with snow
petrel surveys ? and Vivien and Eric will fly down later today, and
then they all join the ship to return to Australia. They?re all very
happy to be moving on. David has left Concordia as well, joining a
scientific traverse that is travelling further into Antarctica?s
interior to Vostok Station, making three weeks of pristine atmospheric
and snow measurements along the way. Of the DC7 wintercrew, only me,
Fred and Djamel will be left. Wow.

Anyway, today some of the guys put up our Christmas decorations, and
we?re looking forward to a couple of days? break. I hope you have a
happy holidays, folks. And please spare a thought for all the doctors,
nurses and all the others who?ll be working through it, I know I will.

Actually, I've just realised I missed the last mail exchange of the
day, and when it goes with the next exchange it'll already be
Christmas day. Bonne Noel a tous!

Current meteo data: Temp -33.9 Pressure 651 millibars Wind speed 2m/s
Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8

This message was sent using IMP, the Internet Messaging Program.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Settling into summer

Standing with the technical crew at the refuelling rig, watching
patiently eastwards as the first plane of the day lands. This one is up
from MZS. It disappears behind the buildings of the summer camp as it
slows on the airstrip. We hear the insectile buzz of the engines rise up
to a shriek, telling us the plane has turned off and is sliding up and
over the flattish hump in the taxi-way that separates the summer camp
from the airstrip. We wait, still watching, and it reappears carefully
negotiating it's way down the taxi-way through the buildings and
equipment stacks of the summer camp towards us.

The pilot has to throttle up the engines to a roar to get the plane to
turn through 90 degrees and pull up side-on to the fuelling rig. Clouds
of snow get blown away, obscuring the summer camp completely. The twin
otter's wing sweeps past us as it turns, it's tip just four metres or so
from us. A strong smell of paraffin washes past. The co-pilot jumps out,
and once the portside propellor stops spinning he gets a cover over the
air intake to stop it freezing. We push the unloading platform to the
rear door and straight away guys are inside and a chain of people in red
and blue suits forms, passing out the smaller crates and bags to the
waiting people and vehicles. No passengers today.

These days unloading the planes are very busy times. Lots of people,
rapid work. The plane is surrounded by attendant vehicles, small and
large. Several skidoos buzz back and forth, pulling trailers stacked
with cargo away to the base and the summer camp. The chargeuse, the same
Caterpillar machine that we use to dig up our drinking water, waits
behind the plane with a trailer ready to take some big cases up to the
EPICA labs. The trailer hasn't got any wheels or skis, it just a big
metal box that gets dragged across the snow. The Merlo, a very big green
lifter fitted with a forklift drives right up to the unloading platform
by the door of the plane to pick up the up the first of several large
crates. Several of us manhandle one onto the forks and it lifts it down
to the chargeuse's trailer. The pickup is parked by the refuelling rig,
having been used as a bus to bring down guys to help with the unloading.
The PB cento, a kind of cross between a flexmobile and a kassborer is
also parked up nearby. The Pistenbully idles behind us, waiting for the
work to finish so he can pass us on the way up to the summer camp. It
seems particularly busy this time because the first raid of the campaign
arrived a couple of days ago and all their tractors, some now fitted
with cranes at their back, are parked up near the taxiway. Their work,
unloading the rows of containers and tanks they brought, paused while
the plane is here.

Thanks to the raid and recent planes, many of the scientists who arrived
in the last couple of weeks are at last getting their equipment and the
scientific work here can start in earnest. They don't just come with
sample tubes and notepads – the gear can amount to a lot of weight. One
group came up with a one tonne echosounder device that can be mounted in
a plane or on a sledge and it looks at stratification of the ice. They
detected a subglacial lake 50 kilometres from the base on a previous
visit. Another group came with an entire planeful of mass spectrometer
apparatus – I have no idea what they're looking for in the snow, but
apparently the clean areas of snow are to be kept super-clean this year.
There is a ping sound going off every 3 seconds out near the glacio
shelter that can be heard 500 metres away, apparently using sonar to
measure water vapour in the atmosphere. The summer campaign is really in
full swing now.

In retrospect, adjusting to the transition from winterover to summer
campaign took me a long while. The first gladness that others had
arrived never wore off but after about a week, it started to feel really
strained at the same time. The wintercrew having been split, there
seemed to be something that made it uncomfortable to have the wintercrew
guys around but to be working and socialising with others, or to be
working with one or two wintercrew but as part of a bigger group. I have
to admit that, such good friends as they are, in some ways it was a
relief that some of them left. Since they've gone I've at last been able
to relax into new friendships and the routine of the summer campaign. Or
maybe all that was needed was a little more time to adjust than I
expected. Or maybe again, tired as we were, the euphoria and energy of
the new arrivals was a little hard to handle and as they come back down
to Earth it's easier. I don't know, maybe none of these things, maybe
all of them. I can't quite figure it out. But after a few weird weeks
life felt settled again.

But I'm tired, worn out. And I've got tendinitis in my left shoulder and
elbow from the gym, knee pain goodness only knows where from, my legs
ache on the stairs and I'm beginning to think that my sleeping pattern
will never get back to normal. I sincerely hope this disintegration is
only temporary! Still happy though. I do like this place. Just like
working in a hospital the only currencies here are responsibilities and
priorities. There are teams working side by side and sharing expertise
whilst working toward their own diverse goals. And I find the people
that come here are particularly friendly, perhaps sharing a camaraderie
based on the feeling that it's a special place to be. People just wander
in to my lab, uninvited and just sit down and start chatting. It's such
a good change.

But strangely enough, in the last few days I have really deeply felt the
confinement of living here for the first time since I arrived, even as
the base opens up and reconnects with the outside world more and more. I
wonder if it's because we've past all but one of the important
milestones of our time here, the only thing left to look ahead to is the
departure. Or is it the press of all the new people, or perhaps their
reminders of what I've been missing? When I sat in the phone booth a few
days ago, looking forward to making my weekly phone call to M, and she
didn't have time to talk, and all the while I was sitting in this tiny
cupboard-sized room with incessant footsteps clanging down the metal
stairs that make the ceiling two feet above my head, I felt weary,
really weary. What I wouldn't give right now for some time at home, or
even just a swim, a really fresh tomato salad and the chance to walk
outside in warm sunshine without a suit on! And definitely, suddenly I'm
missing the freedom to go and do something new, to eat a meal in peace
when I want to, and escape the institutionalism.

So as station life settles in, I find after a brief interlude I'm
feeling unsettled again. For the first time, I'm really looking forward
to going back to normal life and seeing some new colour. Enough white
and blue! Great as this place is, it is demanding and working six days a
week without a break, and in such closeness to the people around, is
definitely tough. It's about six weeks until I put my feet down on solid
earth, seven and I'll be back in Australia. After a year here that's no
time at all and I'll be quite happy working away until then, but, from
now on I will be counting...

A year on the ice

It's a year ago today that we arrived in Antarctica – Me, Vivien, Ilann,
Djamel, and some of the Italians that have already left – Paolo,
Domenico, Angelo.

Antarctica was a fantastic adventure then but now, one year on, it's
been my home.

L'Ecossais that was a bit of curiosity at first, a year on one of the
veterans. I'm well known now, the many summer campaigners who I met last
year and have returned this year regard me as an old friend (Some of the
French technical guys have taken to insisting they speak Scottish, not
English!). There are DC8 crew already here, ready for the next
winterover, keen to hear what it's like. And I've been overwhelmed by
the number of the friends and colleagues volunteering to help out with
the new ESA project I've started.

It feels good to know you came, worked hard, and earned your place.