Monday, January 2, 2012

Last day, December 31

After a fog delay in McMurdo, Joulien was able to depart on 12/28 and travel through Christchurch and Auckland to arrive at LAX at 6am December 31st. I met him there and we relaxed over breakfast at Panera after delivering his checked luggage equipment to our lab at UCI. Our adventure shifts now to remote control of the 2 stations left on the ice shelf, and further development for the ARIANNA project.

Thinking back over the month-and-a-half trip, and our scientific accomplishments:
1) We recovered the old station and the data it had accumulated after loosing contact last year. It turns out that all it needed was power; so given that and a little re-engineering we left it operating again for 2012.
2) The wireless link over the 1km stretch to the second station was found to be excellent. The 0.8/0.3 Mbps download/upload speeds are comparable to inexpensive home cable internet access and quite fast given the conditions.
3) Sending radio waves through the ice shelf, bouncing them off the ocean below, and receiving them back on the surface this year seems to confirm the small power loss observed previously. A neutrino hitting the ice would produce a similar radio pulse and then be detected.
4) The new (second) station is set-up and operating with electronics developed over the past year.
5) A stand-alone wind sensor was setup to record wind speed over the entire year...well past the point when our stations are expected to loose power due to the 24-hour darkness that persists through the austral wintertime. No one really knows what the wind speeds are in the winter, so this will help us design future stations and wind generators.

Personally, this was an adventure of a lifetime. So few persons travel onto Antarctica, and yet some have many times. Our PI, Professor Steve Barwick has been doing this for something like 20 years, and I heard of persons in McMurdo who spend the southern Summers in Antarctica and the northern Summers in the Arctic -- basically always living in snow and cold.

In preparation for the trip I grew a beard, matching Jordan and Joulien in our natural defense against icy wind and sunburn. Oddly, we noticed that part of our beards had become blond. I guess it's one of those mysteries...

Thanks for joining me on this adventure!

(PS: For more stories about McMurdo, I recommend a visit to Michelle Brown's blog. We met her in snowcamp while she was visiting everything in McMurdo. She teaches 8th grade in Austin TX:

Friday, December 23, 2011


I travelled safely home from Auckland Friday. UCI professor Steve Barwick (who is the Principle Investigator for ARIANNA) gave me a lift.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Auckland Tour, Thursday 12/22

The free tour of Auckland includes:
1) A walk under the bridge to the north. You can bungee jump with the original bungee jumpers here.

2) A visit to Victoria hill. Across the bay, the views of the city and islands to the North reveal just how much water there is in all directions from Auckland. Sailing is so prevalent here that more than half the people here have watercraft and boat storage is in stacked warehouses as the marinas are full. They say it's the only city that is on both East and West coasts at the same time.

3) A fish and Chips lunch at another hill with an even more scenic view was followed by a walk on one of the nice beaches in a residential area. Kids were sliding down the grassy slopes on cardboard. The water was lukewarm, perhaps 70-75F.

I met a cool veterinarian from St. Petersburg, Russia who has been working as a volunteer in Samoa for some time and is here in transit to work in the US, perhaps in the Bay Area/CA. Also on our tour were two Philippino nurses who've been working in Auckland for 5mo to a year, enjoying their day off. Three girls from Hong Kong also were on vacation traveling through here. The tour lead/driver pictured here on the beach, named Ku, is a local of Maori background with an incredible knowledge of history and detail tempered by a relaxed SoCal take it easy attitude and friendly smile. His womanfriend and dog joined us on the tour.

Well, it's Friday and I'm off to the airport. My flight departs at 3pm December 23rd, and arrives in LA at 6:30am the same day -- 9 hours before I leave.

PS: I'll post once more after Joulien safely leaves McMurdo on Monday 12/26.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

reflections from downtown Auckland

Tuesday-Wednesday, 12/20-21

Joulien flew to the ice shelf Tuesday and installed the station successfully. Unfortunately his support crew blew it (me and the folks at UCI) and accidentally turned the station-remote off remotely; effectively isolating the station. So he flew back to the site on Wednesday and wired up the link permanently. I can imagine the helicopter landing on the windy snow plain, Joulien jumping out with equipment in hand...huddling down next to the station box while the helicopter waited. Quite an adventure! Unfortunately this means he will not be able to return home until the day after Christmas.

So other than being supportive via Skype, I've enjoyed walking around downtown Auckland while staying at the Cozy Kiwi backpacker (a "backpacker" is basically a private hostel for international travelers). Here's a shot down the hall at the Cozy Kiwi.
Auckland seems to me to have the compactness of Manhattan/NYC, the weather of San Diego, the waterfront and moderate hills of Seattle, and the wonderful diversity of London. There are people from all over: lots of Japanese, Middle-eastern, Indian, a French creperie around the corner run by women from France. Here are a couple shots around town, including the waterfront restaurants at night and a crosswalk where people walk in all directions at the same time:

The wifi in New Zealand is not free. Remember maybe 5 years ago in the States when the only free wifi was at Starbucks (1 hour free per day for anyone)? Then all of a sudden everyone started offering free wifi hotspots. Well, that transition has not happened here yet, and so wherever you go including Starbucks you have to pay 3$NZ (~2.40$US) per hour for internet access.

The city is full of women in their 20's, many wearing tiny skirts and shorts showing their legs off in the Summer weather. Maybe it's Summer break from College here. I also noticed kids playing in the fountain...there were no kids in Antarctica, so seeing them now is delightful. Here's a shot of a small plaza with a cool fountain below bushes of evening star jasmine in bloom (my favorite).

The dark sky phenomena called "night" is really interesting. I mentioned previously how I responded to the first dark night I'd had in the last 5 weeks (excited to see the sun actually set and to see stars again). The next night I was walking around by the harbor here and an irrational fear crossed my mind; a fear of being unprepared for great coldness. It reminded me of the irrational feeling of seeing a total solar eclipse on a clear day like I did in La Paz, Mexico back in 1991. Such an eclipse is a cool phenomenon where the wind stops, the birds settle down for sleep, and the sky becomes dark at noon with sunset on all horizons for a few minutes. But there was also a weird little feeling that the door on the Universe was being closed. Something so majestic was occurring, and it made the pit of my stomach feel an irrational fear that it may not reopen. Back to the dark nighttime...the other effect I noticed is that in the 5 weeks of sunlight nights my instinct to feel sleepy had adjusted to trigger when I felt exhausted regardless of the hour. Now that nights are dark again, I'm noticing that my body is a little confused about whether it should feel sleepy when it's dark or not. I can't imagine what 3+ months of it would do to a person. Must be like going into space and returning to a world of gravity.

In considering travel plans, I set my return flight from Auckland to the latest date I could and still make it home for Christmas Eve. Then the flight from McMurdo would occur when we were done, basically, and the extra days were a buffer to accommodate weather delays. I selected Auckland rather than Christchurch and rather than requesting a layover in Hawaii or elsewhere, because they have an Ashtanga yoga studio here that looked good online. So while here I'm recovering from Antarctica by immersing myself in Sadhana/Bhavana - practice. Surprisingly I've been able to do my full practice the last two days, and even Kapotasana (a particularly challenging yoga pose) has been good. The studio here is good and spacious, and the teachers I've met are great. Here's a pic of the studio hallway.
It's Wednesday night now, so I'm caught up with my storytelling.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

ChristChurch to Auckland, Joulien to the Ice Shelf

Monday 12/19 I arrived in Christchurch, and relaxed and slept most of the day. But first I walked the familiar Papanui Blvd to the Northland mall where I once again bought an electrical adapter to charge my laptop. In New Zealand, the electrical plugs are 3-pronged and at angles to each other. These days electronics usually say on them that they can handle 110-240 Volts and 50-60Hz electricity, so the actual plug connector is the only issue. In the old days and with older equipment you have to also transform the voltage down from 240V to 120V and the 50Hz vs 60Hz difference was not so much of a problem. It's getting even easier to travel as the decades progress. Perhaps someday, national identity will be replaced by cultural and political identity. I guess we'll see if the EU holds together through these economic crises, as it's a model of that progression (with the formation of the European Union in 1994, people no longer needed to show passports to cross national boundaries and no longer needed to exchange currencies).

Back to Christchurch: Coming back to the world of humanity and civilization after 5 weeks, there are a number of things I particularly noticed. Cars and money for one. I was uncertain I could J-walk successfully across the highway, and verbally stumbled when ordering falafel for lunch. The hotel, called "the Elms" has these beautiful green things all around it called plants (I haven't seen any at all in 5 weeks). It's also across the highway from a pet store, where I watched kittens play and puppies yearn for a person's touch. The angelfish continued bobbing and floating as wide-eyed as I. Trees filled with chittering sparrows and the kittens were particularly relaxing to hear and see (The only animals I saw in the last 5 weeks were 3 skua birds and of course humans). I'm exaggerating a bit here, but I think it's very interesting to note the ways things differ. And while talking with a returnee geologist who had once spent 3 months camping in the trans-antarctic mountains, I learned he had felt nausea on first smelling cut grass at the airport on that return.

Another major thing I noticed was all the useless words plastered everywhere. In contrast to the Antarctic simplicity of buildings labeled "155", "210", etc, simply conveying the basic information of what was within, I was once again immersed in the world of competitive advertising and roadsigns providing directions and stating rules of the road. I can more than imagine a utopia where all drivers are skillful, responsible and knowledgeable enough to not need any roadsigns whatsoever, but with visitors from far off places like California such things are a clear necessity. As for the competitive advertising, it's interesting to note that in McMurdo, the competition has already taken place to get there and there are no real competing private businesses. With one cafeteria, 3 bars, assigned housing, free entertainment on the video screens of each dorm, there's no need for competitive advertising. I imagine it's a small step between living in a government city to living in a communist culture, but perhaps someone with more experience can comment.

McMurdo also has the world's best recycling program, since the International Antarctic Treaty restricts any waste or debris from being left on the continent. Everything is hand-sorted and shipped away, so great care is taken to reduce waste and throw out in appropriate bins. Even the human waste from toilets is collected and incinerated (far from McMurdo on the Pegasus airfield)...I happen to meet the incinerator designer on my flight back. When you throw something out in McMurdo you have to decide which of about 10 categories/bins it fits into. If it can still be used it goes in the "skua" bin, named after the local scavenger bird, where you can open a cupboard and find a new pair of boots, a music CD, scarf, toothpaste or who knows what.

Meanwhile Joulien was preparing to deploy the operational station to the ice shelf on Tuesday 12/20 (the next day). The helo will be landing at the 1km mark so he won't have to walk the distance while they wait to take him back. I'll be flying to Auckland in the North New Zealand on Tuesday 12/20, where I'll spend a couple days downtown before returning home.

Seeing the sun set for the first time in 5 weeks was quite nice, as it was later when I threw back the hotel curtains to see Jupiter staring at me through the glass with Orion over his shoulder in the first dark sky in a long time.

Sucess and Travel

We arrived in McMurdo on Friday 12/16 with a little snow on the ground and a little falling. After dinner, the first shower in three weeks, and 10 or 12 hours sleep we returned to the power failure problem and solved it just before midnight Saturday.  Here's a pic of the light snow and another of a rather unusual doorway on the upper floor of the main commons building (cafeteria, a dorm, etc). Note the door opens to the outside with no way down but the quick way.

We took two hours off to see the "Women's Soiree", which was a talent show of McMurdo women that has been in preparation for 2+ months. Two comedic MC's presented: a Maori greeting dance, country singer, belly dancer, a singer from Scott base who learned guitar 2 months previous, a comedic band, and Can-can dancers. Here are a couple pics to give you a feel for it. I particularly liked the woman from Scott Base's song selection which was: "Someone Like You" by Adelle which you can listen to here. Great for evoking feelings of love lost; perhaps the story of my life, but certainly a poetic fundamental of human life.

Sunday night I went to the airfield, leaving Joulien the simple task of flying back to the ice shelf Tuesday with the station and plugging in a handful of cables. On the way to the Pegasus white ice airfield the shuttle drove by Scott Base and I could see where the edge of the Sea Ice was breaking up -- forming a field of 10-tall fragments at all angles. The season has progressed to the point that the sea ice was no longer safe enough to use as a landing strip like it was when we arrived. Waiting on the airfield, I watched the C17 land and unload. Simply slept on the red-eye flight to Chirstchurch arriving around 9am.

Here's a shot saying goodbye to Joulien in Crary lab surrounded by our equipment, and a panorama at the airfield.

Hell Week

In college, the week before final exams is called Hell Week because there's an incredible amount of work and study needed to prepare. Well, our version was, as you might expect, the last few days before we returned to McMurdo (Friday 12/16). An incredible amount of work was needed and Joulien and I worked about 75 hours in a 96 hour period, including one all-nighter with no time to recover until the following night. When you go through grad school like Joulien and Jordan are doing, you are challenged to persist on one project for years...well past the point when most persons give up in frustration. The Ph.D. degree is recognition of that fortitude. After you persist in a task through great effort you feel awesome. You feel like you've overcome huge obstacles and it's a feeling of elation. Receiving the Ph.D. is a lot like that, and the effort Joulien and I put in in our little Hell Week also brought us a good feeling as a result of our intense persistence. I have to say that the effort in the last non-stop 37 hours was well beyond anything I've experienced outside a Buddhist monastic meditation intensive (i.e. "Sesshin").

It started off ok, with our usual 10-hour work days extended to 18 hours for a couple days, but then we had a surprise power failure with the station in the early morning of the last day. Unable to solve it in the remaining hour before our flights, we decided to bring the station back to McMurdo and plan to return with it on a short flight a few days later. With only an hour before the cargo helos arrived the three of us (Nate had been nobly supporting our efforts throughout) broke down the camp while the helos waited to load. In the intense effort to dig our tents out of the ice of the frozen snow, I think I frostbit all my fingertips, which are still numb 4 days later.

But let me back up a little. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday found us working in the main tent to identify, locate, and deal with two unexpected noise sources. To give you an idea for how difficult this is, let me just note that when an airplane flies overhead at high altitude (to or from the South Pole -- a couple times a day some days), their communications radio interferes with us. You might enjoy this episode of "The Big Bang" where they are in the Arctic searching for magnetic monopoles only to discover a new source of radio noise, which you can watch online for $2 at Amazon. Here are a couple pics showing the antennas we use beside the main tent and the stunning view out the back door on a good weather day.

At about 6am Friday 12/16 after working all night, we went to the 1km point, dug 4 trenches 5 feet deep and put antennas in them pointing down. The indestructible cables lead from each to a flag marking the location where we will put the station, beside the solar tower. Then we filled in the pits as fast as we could and headed back to camp to meet Nate for breakfast at 8am. We were to start breaking down the camp at that point, but we needed another hour to drag the station out and hook it up. Just then we suffered a mysterious power failure in the station which plagued us until midnight the next day in McMurdo. Here are a couple pics of the antennas and pits Joulien and I dug and filled in, in a couple short hours.

The first two helicopters arrived and waited while we pack up the camp, and a couple hours later the third helo landed to pick us up with our personal gear, blowing up a snowstorm as it landed. You can see in the third photo how things looked when we left...just remains of test pits dug in a vast plain of flat snow.

These photos from the helo, show the camp and 1km line out the window, and Joulien and I as passengers in the back of the Bell 212 helicopter wearing helmets with comms links.

Maybe you can see the dazed satisfaction in our eyes. We felt pretty good with the plan to fix the new power problem in a day or two and return briefly to bring the station back to the site next week. Great effort and fortitude with the pending reward of a working station for the 2012 year.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Roald Amundsen: December 14, 1911

Joulien and I completed preparing the old ARIANNA station in the tent and brought the box of electronics out to the station's solar and wind towers and battery box. Here's a pic of me sealing it up in the tent and another showing the full station #1 in the snow (5 antennas buried last year, not visible). Flags here and there mark holes in the snow as hazards while we are encamped there. The next good wind will drift snow over them all making the surface pretty uniformly flat.

100 years ago on this day (December 14th), Roald Amundsen of Norway was the first person on Earth to reach the South Pole. He was followed a month later by Robert Scott from the UK. Here's a map of the two expeditions, and our ARIANNA site as well...not too far from where Scott and his party perished on their return journey. Note: McMurdo Station (USA) is on the North side of Ross Island and Scott Base (New Zealand) is on the SW side of the island.

Here's a nice comparison of the two expeditions:, and a bit of news on the anniversary visit by the Prime Minister of Norway: He came through and returned through McMurdo while I was in the field, but DVs (distinguished visitors) are frequency. For example, before we went into the field I happened to walk by the 5 or so persons accompanying the King of Malaysia in McMurdo, excusing myself as I walked by one of his aides. Wonderfully informal, yet maintaining decorum and respect.

So my own experience on the anniversary day of Amundsen reaching the South Pole, was to drag by sled the new solar station and battery box to their site 1km from camp with Nate and Joulien. It was a nice feeling to trek on this anniversary, since I'm a 2nd generation Norwegian-American myself (my father's father emigrated). My father, Dr. Raymond E. Berg of Newport Beach, as a 1st generation Norwegian-American has shared his passion for our heritage, and in fact took me to the traditional Lutefisk dinner (yum) just before I left for Antarctica. He's inspired me with tales of his world travels, which include every continent except Antarctica. So I told him playfully, that I'm going there to complete his goal of reaching them all. Here's a pic of me dragging the solar tower and looking back to camp after the first 1/10th of the way (imagine 10 football fields end-to-end).

Also here's Joulien and Nate with the solar tower after we hooked it to the battery box and wind tower and dead-man anchored guys ropes into the snow. The weather was so nice I had to take another picture of the wind tower about 100 yards farther on.

up through Monday night 12/12

Well, the weather held up enough and a helicopter was able to fly out and land under overcast skies on Monday 12/12. We said farewell with much gratitude to Bija the camp master, and Julia the general assistant. We also wished Jordan luck on reaching his destination on time despite the 4-day weather delay. Suddenly the large tent was much larger, and I realized it never really felt crowded before with 6 persons, a kitchen and a lab bench crammed full of equipment. Nate took over as camp master while Joulien and I focused on the work that brought us out. Here's a nice pic of the helo coming in for a landing behind Joulien.
We made great progress before Jordan left which I haven't mentioned yet. That includes building a new solar power tower and a new wind power tower. Jordan rebuilt the old wind generator, and Jordan and Joulien diagnosed and reconfigured the old station. We also had assembled the new station and begun some tests of peripherals like the GPS time system, automatic Iridium satellite phone dial-out, and AFAR internet link. Jordan also did some ice tests with radio pulses with our help. The idea with those tests is to send a radio pulse through the ice and bounce it off the ocean half a km below, receiving the reflected pulse at a distance. Here are pics of Jordan and Julia working on the old wind tower next to the equipment cargo line and on the right you see Bija and Nate approaching the new 20-foot-tall wind tower at 1km distance from the camp.

Here is a pic of the new solar tower with extendable legs, white cooler full of car batteries, and various antennas and wind sensor on top. We set it up next to the camp tent so we could use it during testing, and will move it 1km by sled later. Also here is a pic of a typical antenna in a snow trench pointing down which we use to either transmit a test pulse or receive a signal bouncing up from the ocean 572meters below.

Here's Jordan working on the new station in the main tent with Bija and Nate in the background, and another shot at the end of a long day with Bija and Joulien warming up, Nate and Julia creatively sewing fish designs on snow flags, and Jordan enjoying a warm drink. Towels, gloves, and hats hang to dry alongside mugs and glasses -- conveniently off the floor.

We also were interviewed on 12/8 via Skype by the Orange County Register. You can read the article from that interview at: I'm not yet sure when it will be in the printed newspaper.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

a tale to tell

alas...we've returned to McMurdo and continuing to work all hours. I'm scheduled to fly to Christchurch, New Zealand in 9 hours, so I'll have to postpone telling my tales for one more day. As I type, I'm looking out the window at the Crary lab in McMurdo station at the thick wet snowfall, settling gentle without wind...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

just work

Hi there, We've been working long days and I've not had a chance to write/post anything for a few days. We are expecting to return to McMurdo tomorrow, so I will have time to catch up and share some stories and great photos I've taken at that time.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

1 month plus

At the onset, this trip was planned to be November 8 to December 8, but a week's weather delay in McMurdo and some underestimate of the amount of development work completed before now has led to a an extension. At present Joulien and I expect to fly to New Zealand on 12/19, and I would return to CA on 12/23.

Today in CA it's Sunday 12/11 (Monday morning here), and I am sorry to miss the annual meetings for the Chapel of Awareness, where I'm obliged to give my annual minister's report.

Sorry my friends, you'll have to listen to a written report in my place.
I hope to see you for Christmas Eve service,
Rev. Eric

Ice Camp After Hours

After work we've enjoyed each other's company in the main tent getting to know each other, listening to music, talking about physics, philosophy & politics, enjoying hot chocolate with Kahlua, and once we watched a movie. Outside after work we've enjoyed Bocce ball, listening to music around the pole at the bottom of the big pit, a snowball fight around the pit's edge, and taking walks down the 1km line of flags that mark the area safe from crevasses. Here are pics of the snowball fight and a Bocce ball game (hard when the balls sink into the snow!).

Nate has worked for NPR and the Washington Post and is now a general assistant at McMurdo. He and Julia, in that job will travel to various research sites around Antarctica for a couple weeks at a time helping with general tasks. For us they've helped un-bury equipment, dig pits for ice tests, and assemble and erect solar and wind towers. Without their help we'd need twice as much time here to complete our work. Bija's role with us is camp master: she's managed all the logistics for the camp and meals with help from Nate and Julia, is our regular radio check-in contact with McMurdo, and is a woofer (wilderness first responder) responsible for the emergency medical kit. Without her, we could not even last more than a day here. Her name is Sanskrit means "seed". I've been learning some Sanskrit this year and understand that the language is constructed from seed concepts (stemming from an even earlier language), so the word "seed" is very fundamental to the philosophy behind the structure of the language. We are very grateful for their help, and ever-joyful presence. Often I hear Julia singing in the morning, and the accents Nate and Julia pretend are delightful.

Here's an audio clip at the end of a 1km walk the other day. Nate starts, Julia chimes in then Joulien starts making a drilling noise with the flag (with corresponding photo).

On another day, December 8, I stayed at the end of the 1km line alone sitting for a period of zazen meditation respecting Rohatsu (Buddha's enlightenment as observed in the Zen tradition). Here's a panorama taken there at that time which you can only imagine. The snow up close is perfectly white (unlike the photo), and you can somewhat tell the difference between grey sky and white snow.
Here is a close up of one part, showing a black dot = our camp 1km away behind a wind tower we setup. You can also see some dark part of the distant Mt. Morning.

Coming back to camp that day it occurred to me that you might wonder how we make water for drinking. We designated a place near camp where we would only walk to to shovel snow into a plastic bin. In the kitchen a large potful can be melted down to water if you pour some water in to get it started (otherwise there's not enough contact between the snow and the pan to melt it unless you wait a very long time). The snow here is very dry, light and fluffy and the water tastes great!