Training, Training, and More Training

It takes a lot to have 800 people live safely, efficiently, and harmoniously down here, let alone do science. That’s what we’re learning for three days: General Fire Safety training, Waste & Recycling training, Medical Brief, Science lab tour, Field Safety training, Communications training, Sea Ice Field training, Ice Edge training, GPS training, and Outdoor Safety Lecture (if we want to go on recreational hikes beyond “the brown stuff”). The firehose of information continues…

It’s fascinating to get a grasp of the level of planning and organization required. Every little issue in everyday life (say, your car’s battery is out) can happen here too. It’s actually often more likely to happen (batteries don’t do so well in the cold), and the consequences can be dire (if you drove out in the field that day and were planning on driving back in the fog). So, every car gets checked over and over again. There are also special procedures for vehicles to back up: the cars and trucks tend to be huge (with wheels up to my height) and with large blind spots, going up and down steep slopes.

Same goes for the waste: about 2/3 of it is recycled, but the recycling is done in California. Every year, a resupply icebreaker ship brings years’ worth of supplies (e.g. fuel and food, so the station doesn’t need to be evacuated if for any reason the ship doesn’t come one year), and packs out trash, machinery that can’t be further repaired (from laundry machines to towing equipment), and any cargo (e.g. scientific) that can’t be flown. Our trash is very carefully sorted in a dozen categories, as even the trash that can’t be recycled will take about a year to make it to a landfill. In Antarctica there is no landfill, no incinerator, and no drain of wastewater into the ocean.

The station’s gem is arguably the Crary science lab, our home base for this month. Opened in 1993, it replaced science shacks with university campus-class facilities. The lab is off-limits for most of station personnel outside of short weekly visit hours, so we’re very lucky to have much of this world-class facility dedicated to our use. There are lab rooms for chemistry, biology, geology, engineering, astronomy, meteorology, etc.; freezer, water, and reagent rooms; offices where investigators can move in during their time here; staging rooms and workshops for field deployment; and a wing with aquarium tanks dedicated to our project. Scientists comprise a relatively small fraction of the base population, so much of the science done on station within the next month will be done by us. It amazes me that the station is bending over backwards to accommodate a bunch of early-career people like us.

The most fun training of yesterday was no doubt the field safety (a.k.a. survival) training. Every time we go in the field, we have to take one survival bag for every 2 people. That bag contains everything needed to make it for two days in the worst Antarctic weather: a light, stable, breathable, and easily deployable tent; foam pads, sleeping bags, rope, stakes (which must be used as dead-man anchors; we learned the appropriate knots), hammer (to kill your mate for food?), stove, pot, fuel, dehydrated food, pocket knife (if the hammer doesn’t do it), small spare clothing like socks or hat, and mental survival items like a guide to camping in Antarctica, a deck of cards, and a magazine. We learned about identifying environmental and human-factor hazards, evaluating risk (likelihood x consequence), and planning ahead to reduce it. We also learned about flags used to indicate safe (e.g. crevasse-free) routes through the ice, dangers, and fuel lines; how to recognize hypothermia or frostbite; and how to deploy by helicopter (yes, it’s coming!). The instructors were amazingly patient and helpful as we practiced lighting up the camp stoves (we managed to do so without setting the building on fire) and pitching the tents.

Communications are also a big deal. The communication central is called MACOPS and they manage radio comm with day trippers, field teams, and even the South Pole station. There are over a dozen radio channels, some requiring direct line of sight, some repeated, and we need to know which one is which and what the protocols are to signal what we’re doing. If we don’t “check in” (give an update) by the agreed-upon time, emergency rescue operations are immediately put into motion, so we definitely want to be on the ball. How embarrassing would it be to be sitting at dinner (or worse, the bar) while the fire department is sending out rescue parties for us…

All this made for another long and exhausting day, but we were told that it was OK for us to venture out to Hut point, where Scott’s Discovery expedition built a hut in 1902. The hut was also used by Shackleton’s party in 1909 and Scott again on the ill-fated 1911-1914 Terra Nova expedition. It still stands, full of supplies just as expedition members left it over a century ago. Because Antarctica is essentially a giant freezer, everything from food supplies to seal carcasses to clothes and kitchen items is in near-perfect condition. We’ll need a special permit to get in (and that’s the plan at some point this month), but for now we could still see all that through the dusty windows. What a time capsule, and how impressive that these people spent several years (winters included) in this one building. We really have it easy these days.

Hut point also provides a very scenic outlook onto Mc Murdo sound. We spent a while watching Weddell seals at close range, resting by or coming out to breathe through cracks in the sea ice. After dinner and our second evening course lecture, it was high time to crash and get ready for today’s day-long training on the sea ice, where I’m headed in a few minutes.

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