27 December 2006

I-TASC expedition 2006/2007

More work on the equipment today. There is a meeting later in the afternoon about the requirements of the FM station. In the meantime, we are plugging in the HF modems to the laptops to see how the communication works. We didn’t get this far last night as we had issues with the Automatic Weather Station software (it’s not compatible with the operating system we are using in the mini PC). The manual was wrong for the modems but we managed to sort out the connectivity. Seems like it is a nice fluent system. We tested connecting a laptop to a High Frequency Radio modem and then connecting another modem to the network, and that works very well. My cable-making skills are not very good but I managed to make a working crossover cable (similar to an ethernet cable but with a different wiring) for the laptop-to-modem connection. After that, the system worked well. For now, this means what we have to do now is to connect one modem to the Automatic Weather Station (AWS) and another to a computer at SANAE. Then we can relay data from the AWS to SANAE via radio, which in turn means the AWS can be deployed remotely.

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So everyone is falling into their roles nicely. I am doing the FM station and helping with the tech for the AWS etc; First is doing a lot of work on the PCs we need for both the AWS and the FM station; Amanda is mainly doing video documentation but also was extremely useful with the AWS because she was the only one that read the manual; and Tom is acting as liaison between SANAE and us, and he is also the person responsible for being eternally optimistic regarding the tech (while First and I have to try and implement his optimistic suggestions – actually it’s good having someone optimistic about technology because over the last years I have become a little cynical about it, so his optimism will help push me on.

In the meantime, the room where we sleep is turning into a micro family. Zama and Remmy are really funny, and it’s good to hang out and talk bullshit at the end of the day. It doesn’t always work because the end of the day is quite hard to determine, it being sunshine 24/7. Despite the permanent sunshine, there is actually a definite evening light. The sun gets lower and you can see the longer shadows on the ice, which kind of gives it the appearance of the moon. Below is a photo taken just as this effect is starting, looking through the window of our room. I will try and take a picture showing this effect more clearly. The antenna you see in the photo is used for measuring the distance and shape of the ionosphere.

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24 December 2006

I-TASC expedition 2006/2007

Today most of our gear arrived. We can finally get to work on Christmas Eve and the eve of Tom’s birthday. Timing. So I scratched around a little bit, rewiring a microphone to be used for the FM station. It also looks like we have a room to use as a studio, which is great news.

If you celebrate Christmas, then good cheer to ya, and look after yourself.

lots of love from Antarctica

x
adam

21 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctica expedition 2006-07 – aboard SA Agulhas icebreaker

Just 4 days to go, and it looks like we may spend our first full day on the continent of Antarctica on Christmas Day. As a child growing up in New Zealand, it struck me as odd that the Christmas songs always spoke about snow and sleighs and enjoying a white Christmas. New Zealand has Christmas in Summer, and the only thing white at that time of year is sand and pavlova. I wondered if I would ever see a white Christmas, and imagined what it would be like. I never quite thought it would be like this.

We are now parked at Penguin Bukta with the nose of the boat resting on the ice shelf. Looking along the giant wall, you see the rounded droopy overhangs giving the appearance of one long frozen tidal wave like the tsunami painted by Japanese painter Hokusai.

The bulldozing team are in their dozers on top of the shelf, digging a path so the ship can offload the gear. The shelf is too high for the boat’s crane to reach, so they have to cut a slope down through the ice to a level the crane can reach. It’s not safe work as there are dangerous overhangs in the cliffs . As recently as last year, they almost lost a few dozers when the shelf collapsed. We sit in the boat and wait and watch occasionally what is happening on the ice some 20 meters above us.

If you look down at the bow, you can see the shifting tones of turquoise and aqua of the shelf as it runs deeply below us. The gently rippling water shifts the light and color below us and it has something of the appearance of an aurora in the sea.

Some of the over-winter team have come aboard. It’s been weird these last days, we have noticed some new faces and kidded ourselves that SANAE must have some scary genetics lab deep in the hull of the boat where they manufacture new crew for the base. If so, then their experiments went a bit mad as the over-winter team look pretty wild. Long beards, hair all over the place, and did I imagine a slightly mad look in their eyes? I think possibly so… still, they are a weird sight to come across in the hallways after not having seen a new face for 2 weeks or so.

I have also met a chap on the boat that is a Linux geek. I am trying not to embarrass myself by talking Unix as a default conversation with him as I do enjoy software politics, and don’t want to scare anyone with my fanaticism. I think I see the same dark fear in his soul as he is a Slackware user, which is about as hardcore as you can get. I am sure that sometime while we are at the base we will degenerate our discussions into obscure file formats and OS wars to the exclusion of all. Als,o there is a guy Tom talked to that is interested in running the FM station I am to build as a
r a d i o q u a l i a project while at the base. He will be over-wintering and will run it through winter. The trick is to test the transmitter to see if it will get the 100 or so miles to Neumayer, as he is keen to broadcast to them. I don’t think it will do it, so we may have to fly in another transmitter.

After a slightly spicy meeting yesterday things seem to have settled down. Routine and knowing what the plan is (ie. the boat isn’t going anywhere for 3 days) helps reduce anxiety. It’s good things feel calmer as it’s a great team and temporary bumps, however predictable, are still frustrating. I am working on my slide shows; I think its a nice format… they aren’t finished but as soon as I get some bandwidth, I will upload them, probably after Christmas.

20 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctic expedition 2006-07 – aboard SA Agulhas icebreaker

So today was another limbo day. We are travelling towards Atka Butka and the plan is that we will dock there and build a ramp for offloading the gear. This has been the way of doing it in the past, but last year they had some dangerous slippages in the ice while offloading, and hence they look to Neumayer to offload this year. We will reach there tonight or early tomorrow morning and then it will take 2-3 days to bulldoze a ramp in the ice shelf. Once this is done, we will be taken by chopper off the boat and to SANAE. The decision was made today to keep us on the boat until the ramp is done as no one can work at the base until the gear arrives anyway. So it looks like it is very possible we will spend Christmas on the boat.

Meantime, more beautiful icebergs glide past. The sea here is very flat, and we have departed slightly from the ice shelf. The ice in the water seems to be just forming, and thin ice layers the top of the water in huge sheets. In other places the ice pack ice looks very soft and new. At times it looks like we are gliding effortlessly through a strange world of freshly picked giant cotton balls.

Tom and I just returned from trying an experiment with the wind sock (Zeppelin) that Tom and Amanda brought for the trip (thanks to Arnoud Traa for his essential advice on all things aural during the preparations for this trip). We placed two condenser mics in the Zeppelin, each facing 180 degrees away from the other. We want to try and get nice clear stereo recordings of the ship breaking some ice. I hung out from a small hole on the bow, holding the mic as close to the ice as I could as the ship broke its way through a large island of ice. I recorded a good few minutes of this and it sounded good so after dinner I will go out and record some more.

Earlier today we met as I-TASC and discussed the documentation strategies. I’m not so good at video but its best we all help each other, so I contributed to the discussions on what should be recorded and the creation of the shot lists. It was interesting, but I am more at home with still images and audio. I have been recording quite a bit of audio of the ship and taking a lot of photos, as I intend to make some audio slide shows (I like the format of slideshows on the web, and when combined with audio, it can be very low bandwidth and very evocative). I have experimented with two such slideshows for the trip and they are ok. I would like to try some more abstract combinations of images and sound to see what effect it has, so I will experiment more with the format. I don’t think we can upload any until we get to SANAE, so I will spend the next three days onboard preparing more.

In the meantime, First Born is sitting on the couch playing PSP (since he has run out of Sopranos), Reme (our cabin-mate from Zambia) is sitting next to First discussing VLF frequencies with his friend Zama, Amanda is sleeping in her cabin, and Tom and I just came in from recording ice breaking under the ship. It feels familiar, but I would like a change of scene. I think I will work a lot over the days before we leave the ship as it will help ward off cabin fever… I am missing talking to my friends in other countries, and I miss the luxury of casual communication with them. Hi to all if you are reading this… I hope to bring back some nice stories to share next time we meet…. miss ya all heaps. Have a warm drink for me 😉

19 December 2006

I-TASC Antarctic expedition 2006-07 – aboard SA Agulhas icebreaker

We woke up at 9am to find the ship parked on the pack ice. The helicopters had already gone to do a scout and we were waiting for their return. No one is really sure of what the plan was, and I have heard at least four versions of what’s going on. The stories differ from “I heard we are definitely leaving today by chopper for SANAE” to “we won’t even think about getting everyone off for another 3 or 4 days.” So there you go, if you ain’t the boss you don’t know what’s happening – such is the way with many parts of ship life, I have found. Limbo was better today however. We travelled quite a  distance looking for routes to Neumayer. Everyone was outside on the decks taking in all that was to offer. The day featured beautiful clear blue skies with fine lace-like clouds and a lot of variation in ice. At one point, ice cut into the horizon in huge mountainous shapes very similar to the stony red mountains seen in wild west movies. Other times, we approached large areas of pack ice where the pressure had caused ridges, outlining large (approx. 6m square), tightly packed, and irregularly shaped blocks of ice. The ridges formed miniature mountain ranges about 50cm high around each block. Other times, we moved through open water with small ice all around us and with the clean blue skies and water, clear, deep, blue. Here we could see the luminous blue keels of ice under each iceberg.

There is also a fair bit of wildlife around. Often on large blocks there are fresh footprints from penguins that have evaded the icebreaker, and we pass many Emperor Penguins that are very talented at ignoring us. They seem so bored with us, one could imagine they see icebreakers twice a day and three times on Sundays. There is a troop of Emperors off the port side. They slide forward on their stomachs in single file about 1 km from the ship. Occasionally one penguin stands up and the queue behind stalls momentarily as the standing penguin looks around and then awkwardly tilts forward until it falls over on its stomach and begins the slide forward again. There are a few Weddell seals around, but mostly its us and the penguins.

Later the helicopters did some investigation of the possible routes between our ship and Neumayer. At one stage we made a lot of ground with the Agulhas cutting through thick but soft ice. As I write this the ship is trying to do just this, forcing a passage to the base. The ship reverses about 100m and then ploughs full throttle into the ice, often rising a metre or so as it cuts through. The Agulhas makes about 10-20m each time. I think the base is several kilometers away. The issue here, is that as we cut forward, the ice is closing behind us, leaving the possibility we might get trapped.

…I just returned from checking out the stern and it appears we are indeed stuck. The ice has closed behind us and there is nothing but kilometers of ice ahead. The Agulhas is retreating a few metres at a time and then thrusting forward, making about 2 metres every 20 minutes. According to one of the crew, there is an issue with a thruster which doesn’t help. It seems we will continue this battle for the night. The open water is just 500m metres behind us but blocked by large pieces of ice we broke up on our way through. Additionally, the ice is too weak here to offload onto the ice…

…It’s after dinner now, and just before dinner there was an interesting 45 minutes when the ship tried to back out of the trail we had cut. The ship backed up as fast it could, pushing large pieces of broken ice backwards and to the side. When the ship could not move anymore, it would drift forward a few feet and blow water out of thrusters at the back of the boat. Some ice would then be shifted by the currents of the thrusters and the Agulhas would then try moving backwards again. This went on for about 30 minutes before the ship was in a clear pool and could then push more easily back to where we started. There is now a slight twilight and the ship is in open water making towards our plan B dock (Akta Bukta).