IceCube

“The only true voyage of discovery … would not be to travel to new lands, but to possess other eyes.”
                                                                                                                 Marcel Proust

I was fortunate to have a particularly close involvement with one of the most extraordinary scientific instruments at the Pole, or for that matter on the planet, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. 

Unlike the other astrophysical observatories at the Pole, all of IceCube's vital detection devices are invisible and inaccessible. In fact, they are buried up to 2.5kms deep in the ice of the Polar plateau. As I've mentioned, the Pole is quite high in altitude (9,300ft/2,800m), but the extraordinary thing is that below the surface, the ice extends all the way down to sea level, almost 3km down. The other extraordinary thing about the ice is that it's incredibly clear - clearer than crystal glass, clearer than distilled water, in fact, it's the most transparent solid known. Below 1.5kms down the pressure is so great that the trapped air bubbles that give ice its milky opacity dissolve into the crystal matrix of the ice and the transparency increases dramatically. This is the main reason the Pole was chosen for the Neutrino Observatory - but to explain that more fully I'll have to cover some basics.

Neutrinos 101

This is a blog, not a physics textbook, so I'll try to be brief. Neutrinos are elementary subatomic particles that interact with other matter only through the weak subatomic force which is responsible for radioactive decay, and which plays an essential role in nuclear fission. The weak force is one of the four forces of the "standard model" along with gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong force (which binds quarks together to form protons and neutrons). The weak force is so named because it is orders of magnitude weaker than either the electromagnetic or strong force and operates at very close range only.

Neutrinos have no charge (and so are not affected by the electromagnetic force) and have minuscule mass (and so are practically immune to gravity). Consequently, they have to essentially collide with another subatomic particle to have any effect on it. This results in the wonderful (and frustrating) property that they hardly ever interact with other matter at all. They are created through radioactive decay and other subatomic interactions (weak interactions) and are created in huge quantities in the sun, the atmosphere and core of the earth, and in high energy cosmic events such as novae, super-novae and gamma ray bursts. They are in fact the commonest particle in the universe (there are a billion for every atom of matter), but also one of the least interactive and so are surprisingly difficult to detect. Some 60 billion of them pass through each of your fingernails every second - none of them having a single interaction on the way. In all probability, in your lifetime only one of those billions and billions of neutrinos passing through your body will interact with an atomic nucleus - smashing it apart, but in all likelihood not causing any noticeable effect. 

Ray Jayawardhana in his fascinating book "Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe" says, "Neutrinos travel right through the Earth unhindered, like bullets cutting through fog. Besides, the Earth’s bowels generate neutrinos, as radioactive elements decay, and so do collisions of energetic particles from space in the upper levels of the atmosphere. Cataclysmic deaths of massive stars set off tremendous bursts of neutrinos, which escape these sites of mayhem unscathed and bring us news of awesome celestial events millions of light-years away. Moreover, our planet is immersed in a sea of cosmic neutrinos, which sprang forth when the infant universe was barely two seconds old."

The only way they can be detected is to have a huge detector so that the exceedingly rare probabilistic event that they will interact with a proton will happen often enough for us to be able to record them. This is where the South Polar ice cap comes in. The IceCube array occupies a cubic kilometer of ice at the Pole. Such a huge volume of ice ( 1 million cubic meters) experiences scores of neutrino interactions every day. 

The Array

I've already mentioned that the IceCube Neutrino array occupies a cubic kilometer of ice at the Pole. Specifically, the array consists of 5,160 photo-sensitive "Digital Optical Modules" or DOMs arrayed on 86 vertical "strings" that have been drilled into the ice. The strings are in a hexagonal grid spaced 125 meters apart and each string holds 60 DOMs spaced 17 meters apart. The logistics involved in creating the array are impressive. Between 2003 and 2011 close to 5 million pound of cargo were shipped from all over the world to the South Pole, requiring 181 LC-130 flights. That's a remarkable feat in itself but just add in the paperwork, the freight handling to get everything to Christchurch before the LC-130's are even loaded, and then the fuel and man-hours to make it all happen! Each bore hole required two days of constant drilling, and 4,800 gallons of gasoline to create, melting 200,000 gallons of ice in the process. At its completion in 2010, the Observatory had cost US$279 million.

The IceCube Lab. My home base at the Pole.

The IceCube Lab. My home base at the Pole.

The "Fern Drill" used to drill through the upper layers of compacted snow - hot water is pumped through the copper tube to melt through the ice as the drill is slowly lowered. It's a sculptural work all on it's own.

The "Fern Drill" used to drill through the upper layers of compacted snow - hot water is pumped through the copper tube to melt through the ice as the drill is slowly lowered. It's a sculptural work all on it's own.

Checking on each DOM and its connection as it's lowered into the ice.

Checking on each DOM and its connection as it's lowered into the ice.

DOM (063A - Golden) being lowered into the ice.

DOM (063A - Golden) being lowered into the ice.

An artist's impression of the DOM array under the ice. If you could light it up, the ice really would be that clear.

An artist's impression of the DOM array under the ice. If you could light it up, the ice really would be that clear.

Diagram of the complete IceCube array.

Diagram of the complete IceCube array.

And all of this is now frozen into the ice. Once the DOMs are lowered on their cables, the holes are filled with water and refrozen. All that appears above the surface is the thick braid of cables which are routed across the ice surface and then into the main building of the IceCube Lab.

Here the cables get divided up and distributed to banks of processors that do the initial processing, event reconstruction and filtering of the data to see if any recorded event is worth looking at in greater detail. These events are then uploaded to the IceCube servers and then transmitted during the short daily period of satellite connection to the scores of scientists across the world who are taking part in the collaboration at any one time. Hard Drives recording all of the events and more detailed data are shipped back to the US every few months.

So the red cable goes......

So the red cable goes......

The Signal

So what do the scientists 'see'? Or more directly, what do the DOM's capture? 

When neutrinos or other subatomic particles collide with protons in the hydrogen or oxygen nuclei in the ice, they scatter and result in the emission of a charged lepton (an electron, or a muon (a sort of heavy electron) or a tau). If this collision is high energy, the charged particle can fly off at close to the speed of light, in fact it may move faster than a photon can travel in ice and in so doing creates a tiny blue flash of Cherenkov radiation which has been likened to the light equivalent of a sonic boom. The DOMs can detect a single photon of light and so when this tiny flash occurs multiple DOMs register its passing and so can map its intensity and direction. 

Unfortunately neutrinos aren't the only source of these charged particles. They can also be generated by cosmic ray (subatomic particle) cascades in the atmosphere or ice and through radioactive decay in the earth. IceCube is located under 1.5km of ice in part to filter the incoming cosmic rays. The genius of the IceCube Observatory though is that its DOMs actually look down, not up. If any particle manages to get through the earth it must be a neutrino - anything else would have been absorbed along the way. The IceCube observatory is a gigantic neutrino telescope which uses a cubic kilometer of ice as its primary mirror and the entire planet as a filter.

Any charged particle created by a neutrino follows the same path as the original neutrino. So any charged particle path revealed through Cherenkov radiation that shoots upward through the ice as seen by the DOMs must have been generated by a neutrino following the same path.  The neutrino may have arisen though cosmic ray interactions on the other side of the planet, but if it is very high energy it probably  has an astronomical source. These high energy neutrinos are what IceCube was primarily designed to detect.

The processors in the IceCube Lab receive huge amounts of data from charged particles coming from other directions too. This data gives scientists insights into the solar wind and other sources of cosmic rays. IceCube registers more than 100 billion muons per year, produced by the interaction of cosmic rays in the Earth’s atmosphere. There have to date only been a few high energy neutrino detections - the first three were observed in 2003 and were named Bert, Ernie and Big Bird!

IceCube's traces of the highest energy neutrinos ever recorded. From left to right, Bert, Ernie and Big Bird.

IceCube's traces of the highest energy neutrinos ever recorded. From left to right, Bert, Ernie and Big Bird.

This image shows the graphical representation that is generated for each event. Below is another info-graphic from the IceCube website which explains the representation in detail. 

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The IceCube Collaboration website lists highlights of the scientific findings to date. Clearly this has been an incredibly successful instrument and its useful life has only just begun.

 

Signal achievements

Why would an artist be interested in working with IceCube? There are many things that I find fascinating about IceCube.

• The engineering required to create the instrument and the physics underlying the project are awe inspiring. As a builder of unique instruments myself I'm absolutely overwhelmed by the gizmo itself and the huge amount of research, collaboration, testing, unique engineering and shear hard work required to bring it to fruition. 

• The mastermind behind the IceCube project Prof. Francis Halzen said this about the project - “To have your career on the line half a world away is hard enough. But to know that you have embroiled so many others in the same improbable adventure, that your funders and colleagues expect results, and that you are totally powerless to affect the outcome, is a form of exquisite torture.” 
The ability of Prof. Halzen to garner the support of the NSF and to develop the complex international collaboration that IceCube entails today is impressive. I'm often disheartened by the lack of collaboration in the visual arts. The myth of the solo genius struggling in the atelier is still dominant in my field and I'm inspired by IceCube to see what a different model of art practice, one involving complex international collaboration, might look like. 

• A key focus of my current research is the relationship between noise and signal. IceCube (and the other astrophysical instruments at the Pole) are striving at the very edge of perceptible signal. The huge amount of 'noise' that must be sorted through to find the 'signal' of neutrinos is almost unbelievable. Placing the array under more than a mile of ice in one of the remotest places on earth cuts some of the noise. Pointing the DOMs downward to use the earth as a cosmic ray filter cuts a lot more of the noise. Even then, high energy events coming from astronomical sources are a tiny fraction of the total number of recorded events. With this scant data scientists then strive to understand what these rare events might tell us about the physics of the formation of the universe or the demise of massive stars. The capacity to sort through layer, after layer, after layer of noise to discern the faintest of signals and then extrapolate from that signal to understand the nature and history of the universe is the signature achievement of contemporary astrophysics. For me, this search for understanding is the most significant cultural act of contemporary humans. As an artist I wonder what I can contribute to this endeavor?

• Some of the noise that IceCube is trying to filter is proving to be really interesting to other scientists studying glaciology and the solar wind. One man's noise is another's signal. All noise is essentially signal - it depends on how you look at it. 

 

Polar Science

One of the key reasons for me to come to the Pole is the amazing science being conducted here. On the coast at McMurdo, there is a great variety of observational science being conducted ranging from geophysics on Mt. Erebus, through benthic and marine ecosystem studies under the ice, palaeozoology and palaeobotany on the fossil beds exposed in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and the dry valleys, micro- and crypto-biology in the freshwater lakes and sediments of the dry valleys and on to astrophysics being conducted by long range balloons launched from the Long Range Balloon (LRB) facility near McMurdo which sends high altitude balloons on month-long laps around the continent before releasing their payloads to be recovered from the Ice.

But at the Pole, the science is dedicated pretty much to meteorology and atmospheric studies and to astrophysics. Which is why I was here. After having read so much over the years about IceCube, BICEP, the Keck Array and the South Pole Telescope (SPT) it was really exciting to get to see these amazing instruments in person and to have a chance to talk to the scientists about their work.

I got to know the group of scientists working on BICEP and the Keck Array while awaiting flights to the Pole and over dinners in the galley. They were enthusiastic about showing me around their telescope and to explain in detail the upgrades that they were installing. 

The Martin A. Pomeranz Observatory (MAPO) containing both BICEP and the Keck Array.

The Martin A. Pomeranz Observatory (MAPO) containing both BICEP and the Keck Array.

All of these instruments (BICEP, Keck and the STP) are dedicated to observations in the microwave, millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths. This is the lower energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum (between infrared (heat) and radio waves). The South Pole is an ideal location for observing at these frequencies because the atmosphere is very dry (water vapor is opaque at these frequencies), the Pole is high (9,300ft/2,800m) and so the atomsphere is relatively thin, the ambient temperature is very low (these instruments are chilled even further to a fraction of a degree Kelvin), radio and heat pollution is minimal, the weather conditions are relatively stable and "mild", there is good infrascture already in place and finally, of course, it is night half of the year. All of these factors make the arduous (and expensive) task of moving people, equipment and energy to the end of the earth worthwhile. 

All of these instruments are focussed on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB); the relict radiation permeating the universe that is the remnant of the "Big Bang". This is the oldest light in the Universe! The light that's still permeating the entire Universe from the moment the lights went on! Over the 14 billion years of its continued expansion (and cooling) the extreme high energy left over from the initial universal expansion has shifted into the microwave range and now can be observed as a faint (almost) isotropic glow across the sky. Each of these telescopes has a unique approach to observing the CMB and gleans different data accordingly.

One of the 5 cryostats from the Keck array being tested and calibrated after having its sensors replaced - soon to be super-cooled and reduced to a vacuum.

One of the 5 cryostats from the Keck array being tested and calibrated after having its sensors replaced - soon to be super-cooled and reduced to a vacuum.

MAPO houses the Keck Array which uses 5 super-cooled telescopes called "cryostats" each of which is sensitive  to a particular frequency. The aim of the instrument is to detect polarization in the CMB which will give information to help understand the first 380,000 years of the Universe's existence after the Big Bang - the period of rapid expansion know as "inflation". To detect the subtle variations in the microwave background the cryostat must be cooled to just 0.25º above absolute zero - the theoretical temperature where all atomic movement ceases (-459.67ºF / -273.15ºC). That's really cold - even for the Pole! The CMB itself is only 2.75º above absolute zero - it's had a long time to cool down after all!

One of the silicon microwave detectors surrounded by its precision machined niobium alloy housing which becomes super-conductive when super-cooled.

One of the silicon microwave detectors surrounded by its precision machined niobium alloy housing which becomes super-conductive when super-cooled.

Inside the Keck array - with 4 out of the 5 cryostats in place. How do they keep track of all those wires?

Inside the Keck array - with 4 out of the 5 cryostats in place. How do they keep track of all those wires?

Hanging with the excellent BICEP/Keck team and some other polar folk along for the tour. You can see the pointy end of the cryostats emerging from the mount. The instrument is surrounded by a plywood and mylar shield to reduce heat interference from the nearby buildings at the Pole.

Hanging with the excellent BICEP/Keck team and some other polar folk along for the tour. You can see the pointy end of the cryostats emerging from the mount. The instrument is surrounded by a plywood and mylar shield to reduce heat interference from the nearby buildings at the Pole.

In the adjacent building is housed the South Pole Telescope and the latest version of BICEP - BICEP 3.

The South Pole Telescope primary mirror (left) and the shielded aperture of BICEP 3 (right). The outhouse is on the extreme right and is considerably lower tech!

The South Pole Telescope primary mirror (left) and the shielded aperture of BICEP 3 (right). The outhouse is on the extreme right and is considerably lower tech!

The 10m primary "mirror" is made from carefully machined aluminum plates. The surface is accurate to fractions of a mm - perfectly smooth and mirror-like at the longer wavelengths the mirror collects.

The 10m primary "mirror" is made from carefully machined aluminum plates. The surface is accurate to fractions of a mm - perfectly smooth and mirror-like at the longer wavelengths the mirror collects.

The secondary and tertiary (covered) mirrors inside the building. Nice machining on that secondary!!!

The secondary and tertiary (covered) mirrors inside the building. Nice machining on that secondary!!!

The business end of the telescope (or "focal plane array") is another super-cooled cryostat.

The business end of the telescope (or "focal plane array") is another super-cooled cryostat.

You can read much more about these various instruments on the websites of the collaborating institutions who have developed and work with these instruments - e.g. SPT, BICEP and Keck Array.

The science is phenomenal and, for me, truly inspiring. The Keck Array and BICEP are searching for polarization in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation to better understand the nature of the initial inflation of the universe immediately following the Big Bang. Essentially that are looking back in time to observe the universe before photons even came into existence! Wow!

And the SPT is mapping "primary and secondary anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background" (i.e. very subtle variations) to observe distant galaxy clusters, using the CMB as a kind of universal backlight to reveal the silhouettes of galaxy clusters. This will provide not only information about the formation of galaxies in the early universe but will help quantify the nature of and amount of dark energy in the universe. 

So why would an artist care about all this stuff??

Well, we are talking about the origin of the Universe here! Since we've looked to the heavens for the first time we have wondered at our existence and our place in the cosmos. I find it incredibly exciting that here in the early 21st Century we are on the brink of genuinely understanding the structure of matter and the history of the Universe. Not just proposing fascinating stories and myths that inspire awe but genuinely understanding through a process of critical inquiry and increasingly focussed analysis. What greater goal can there be for humanity?

I find the image of the CMB fascinating - some have called it the Universe's first baby photo. Those minute anisotropies can be read to reveal the development of the the first years of the Universe and give clues as to nature of dark energy. Such subtle variations in what was at first considered background noise, variations of a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, revealing such profound insights into the history and nature of the Universe. It is impressive and awe inspiring, don't you think? 

As an artist, I've long been interested in pareidolia - the tendency of humans to see meaningful patterns in random noise. And as a non-astrophysicist, I can't help but wonder if the patterns scientists discern in these subtle anisotropies might amount to a very sophisticated case of pareidolia. Astronomy has a rich history of mistaken (perhaps even hopeful) vision. Percival Lowell's painstaking work on the canals of Mars being a classic example. Lowell's vision was augmented by his beliefs and imagination (and probably the 19th century craze for canal building). Only later when higher resolution instruments with cameras attached resolved the surface into a cratered and eroded desert were the canals finally banished (from science if not from popular imagination).

Lowell's map of the Martian canals from 1895 - more information about the history of the Martian canals can be found here.

Lowell's map of the Martian canals from 1895 - more information about the history of the Martian canals can be found here.

I am curious about this nexus point where information is so minimal (so difficult to distinguish from background noise) that our imaginations are called into play to fill in the details. Scientists strive to create increasingly sensitive instruments and new algorithms to filter out the noise - to get a "cleaner" signal and "good" data. As an artist, I relish this ambiguous space were rationality and imagination vie for supremacy as we navigate a sea of noise.

“The next point is as to what constitutes proof. Now, between the truths we take for granted because of their age, and those we question because of their youth, we are apt to forget that in both proof is nothing but preponderance of probability. The law of gravitation; for example, than which we believe nothing to be more true, depends eventually, as recognized by us, upon a question of probability; and so do the thousand and one problems of daily life upon so many of which we act unhesitatingly and should be philosophic fools if we did not. All deduction rests ultimately upon the data derived from experience. This is the tortoise that supports our conception of the cosmos. For us, therefore, the point at issue in any theory is not whether there be a possibility of its being false, but whether there be a probability of its being true. This, which is evident enough when squarely envisaged, is too often lost sight of in discussing theories on their road to recognition. Negative evidence is no evidence at all, and the possibility that a thing might be otherwise, no proof whatever that it is not so. The test of a theory is, first, that it shall not be directly contradicted by any facts, and secondly, that the probabilities in its favor shall be sufficiently great.”

-Percival Lowell

Flying further South

The final leg of my trip to the Pole proved elusive!

After years of planning and delays here I was at last in McMurdo, but flights south to the Pole were constantly being delayed, postponed and cancelled. 

I was in a sort of polar Groundhog Day. Every morning I’d wake up, pack my bags, go to breakfast, look at the departure monitors and see that my flight was either cancelled, postponed to later in the day or was apparently going to fly - only to be cancelled later in the day. The cancellations were mostly due to predicted bad weather at McMurdo later in the day. This would prevent the LC-130 ski-planes from returning from the Pole - they can’t stay at the Pole for any more than a short while without freezing up.

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One day we all loaded into the Delta transport and headed out into the fog, assured that we were going to fly. We waited for a while for it to clear and miraculously it did. We climbed aboard the Herc, loaded all our gear, strapped in, put in our earplugs, took off, got to see tantalizing glimpses of the McMurdo Ice sheet and the Trans-Antarctic Range as we climbed, banked, did a 180º loop, and landed again. We were back on the ground within 15 minutes of taking off. All flights cancelled again.

Adding new meaning to "cooling your heels". Waiting by the passenger transport Delta "Dawn" for fog to clear the runway at Williams Field

Adding new meaning to "cooling your heels". Waiting by the passenger transport Delta "Dawn" for fog to clear the runway at Williams Field

Ground control to Major Tom....

Ground control to Major Tom....

Eventually after 6 days of delays we were loaded back onto the LC-130, took off and headed South. The view of the mountains was spectacular through the tiny, crusty windows. I wished for panoramic views but even the glimpses were breathtaking.

After about 2 hours in the air we started to climb up one of the larger glaciers and we could see the polar plateau stretching for miles out in front of us, unbroken to the horizon. At first I thought I was looking down on a smooth layer of clouds, then I realized it was ice, seemingly smooth and featureless from this altitude stretching out to merge with the pale blue sky at the distant horizon.

As we started to lose altitude on approach to the Pole the features of the ice surface became more noticeable. It wasn’t cracked and dimpled with fissures and compression ridges like the glaciers and ice shelves we’d left behind but evenly textured from the windblown drifts of snow and ice that occasionally revealed patches of glassy ice beneath. It reminded me most of a sheet of fine watercolor paper - smooth and even overall but with a complex fractal texture. 

I have written elsewhere about the whiteness and isotropic nature of the Polar plateau as if it was a blank sheet of paper - "The Polheim: a marker of absence".

“Perhaps the foundational metaphor of horror and the sublime in literature is the dreaded ‘blank white page’ faced by all artists and writers: the page awaiting our imprint, like footsteps in the snow. Many artist have taken the steps required to mark that page, to scale the gradients of that seemingly isotropic and blank landscape and in so doing have shaped our understanding, expectations of and perception of the Antarctic.“

But I didn’t expect it to actually, physically look like a sheet of paper.

I was also reminded of the oceans of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris - an amorphous and unfixed landscape that reflects our own thoughts and desires back to us and makes them real.

I crossed the polar plateau from the Trans-Antarctic Range to land at South Pole Station in less than an hour. It was unimaginable to think of Amundesen and Scott and their men slogging their way across the icy desert in search of the Pole - unmarked, difficult to locate and fix, offering nothing but a reflection of what the men bought with them - dreams of fame, national pride, and the strange notion of “discovery”.

Cape Evans

One of the central aims of my time at McMurdo has been to visit the three renowned historic huts on Ross Island. Scott's Discovery Hut on Hut Point just a few hundred yards from McMurdo Station, Scott's Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans and Shackleton's Nimrod expedition hut at Cape Royd's.

A key interest is to see how the technology, methodology and discoveries of science in Antarctica have changed over the last 100 years. The huts are reliquaries of a time when science was done very much by hand. Almost the last gasp of the Enlightenment approach to science when direct personal observation was paramount. This required the early explorer/scientists to deploy their fairly simple analog instruments in the field and then attend them like clockwork - to go out at regular intervals irrespective of how horrible the conditions and reset thermometers, nurse electrical connections, and take readings and make observations in notebooks by (frostbitten) hand. Contemporary scientists can access data remotely (1/2 a world away) or go out to their instruments once every few months to access a data logger that’s been uploading records constantly to a flash drive. My instruments and the way I plan to handle them are more in keeping with earlier approaches.

I arrived too late in the season to access Cape Royds, and almost too late to access Cape Evans as I was getting there by skidoo on the sea ice, which this late in the season is starting to melt and get slushy. I managed to get to Cape Evans with the team from McMurdo who were pulling up the red and green flags marking the safe route on the ice, just a few days before the ice was closed to all traffic for the summer.

You can see the route across the ice here. North from McMurdo, around to the west of the Erebus Ice Tongue ( a spill of ice pouring off Mt. Erebus and out onto the pack ice), weaving between the Dellbridge Islands and onto the small triangular patch of Cape Evans. About an hour or so by skimobile on a fine day.

The Terra Nova hut is the largest and perhaps the most poignant of the Ross Island as it is the base from which Scott left on his fateful expedition to the Pole.  I won't recount the history of the hut here - I would just be paraphrasing history researched by others. But I will recommend a wonderful photo documentary of the huts featuring the extraordinary images of Jane Ussher - Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton. 

The Terra Nova Hut lovingly restored and preserved by New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust. Mt Erebus looms behind.

The Terra Nova Hut lovingly restored and preserved by New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust. Mt Erebus looms behind.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to savor the hut in person.

The first things you notice, surprisingly in the cold dry air, is the smell. Not exactly unpleasant but definitely pungent, like old leather mixed with sweat and creosote. The musty, lingering odor of the old explorers perhaps?

The next thing you notice is the darkness compared to the blinding summer sunlight reflected off the perennial snow and ice outside. There is no internal lighting and the fact that your eyes take a good while to adjust seems appropriate. It’s as if your own senses have to come up to speed to fully appreciate the textures, memories and emotions of the place.

Captain Robert Franklin Scott's bunk.

Captain Robert Franklin Scott's bunk.

It's interesting to compare with this contemporary image of Scott taken by Herbert Ponting on October 7th, 1911.

It's interesting to compare with this contemporary image of Scott taken by Herbert Ponting on October 7th, 1911.

Old news.

Old news.

Each of the Ross Island huts have been visited and photo documented by hundreds (thousands?) of visitors, but an Antarctic blog wouldn't be complete without my own set of images from the huts. I was interested in how much the scientific focus of these missions was apparent in the objects left behind - the impressive sets of chemicals and apparatus, the remaining collections of penguin bodies and eggs, the space dedicated to Ponting's darkroom and the radio bench. There are even some sheets of recording paper from a Campbell-Stokes Heliograph! I didn’t know that Scott had one with him - I’ll talk about this instrument more when I deploy my own version of it at the Pole.

Someone took the blue pill!

Someone took the blue pill!

Polar Science!

Polar Science!

What struck me the most was the clothing still left in the hut. Hard worn, often repaired and now carefully folded. The clothes give the impression that the explorers have just stepped out for a minute. They embody the care, frugality and stark conditions in which these men operated for months and months. The hut seems stark, cold and vulnerable but it was still "home" for the explorers. And there are countless small homey touches everywhere you look.

The curved heliograph sheets are on the right hand side next to the reels of linen thread.

The curved heliograph sheets are on the right hand side next to the reels of linen thread.

A jumper carefully mended with sail cloth.

A jumper carefully mended with sail cloth.

Evolution has provided the best insulation.

Evolution has provided the best insulation.

Two essential requirements - dry hand-knitted socks and a "hottie".

Two essential requirements - dry hand-knitted socks and a "hottie".

There was only one item that I was tempted to pilfer - the oilcloth apron hanging on Ponting's darkroom door. 

There was only one item that I was tempted to pilfer - the oilcloth apron hanging on Ponting's darkroom door. 

The front porch.

The front porch.

Perhaps the strangest part of the preserved hut is the porch where stores were kept and the ponies stabled. One very large component of the distinctive scent of the hut comes from a huge pile of seal blubber carefully laid up in the passageway. With no small critters to nosh on it and the deep freeze conditions outside, the blubber pile is relatively ‘fresh’.

The surface of the pile reminds me of a melting glacier front. A blubber glacier slowly sliding out to sea.

The surface of the pile reminds me of a melting glacier front. A blubber glacier slowly sliding out to sea.

Pony snowshoes.

Pony snowshoes.

The strangest (and to me most disturbing) remnant is the largely decomposed carcass of a husky at the end of the stables.

I’ve been trying to discover the identity of the poor pooch. The dog was one of the sled dogs bought south for Shackleton’s 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition - better known in popular imagination as the Endurance expedition. The heroic tale of the survival of all the men on this expedition is well known, with Shackleton credited as a great and faithful leader as he didn’t lose a single man.

The equally heroic B-side of the story of the men who were deployed to Cape Evans on the Aurora to stock depots for Shackleton and his men as they crossed from the other side of the continent didn’t go so well. Ten men were marooned at Cape Evans when the Aurora, containing most of their supplies and equipment, broke anchor and was unable to return (it was also locked in ice for 9 months but survived and limped back to New Zealand). The Ross Island party managed to complete their mission nevertheless (chalking up the longest sledging journey taken at that time - 198 days), raiding the remaining supplies at Point Hut (near McMurdo) and finally losing three men to drowning and scurvy before managing to return to Cape Evans. The dogs they bought with them did heroic duty under the care of Ernest Joyce to bring the survivors home.  Finally, Shackleton was able to steam to the stranded men’s rescue. Of the four remaining dogs (of the original 18 on the Aurora), Con was killed by the others in a fight before the rescue. The other three returned to New Zealand and were kept in the Wellington Zoo. Oscar the last survivor lived to a purported age of 25! So presumably the skeleton belongs to poor old Con.

The faithful pooch’s corpse had been outside (laying where he died) for most of the last 100 years and was slowly degraded by skuas and rot. The Antarctic Heritage Trust carefully conserved his remains moved him into the porch on a bed of straw where he could rest in peace more nobly..

The faithful pooch’s corpse had been outside (laying where he died) for most of the last 100 years and was slowly degraded by skuas and rot. The Antarctic Heritage Trust carefully conserved his remains moved him into the porch on a bed of straw where he could rest in peace more nobly..

The hut is an incredible artifact. Carefully catalogued, restored and preserved but still in its original location. All of its objects carry the tarnish of hard use and the slow decay of a century of polar exposure, but still feel useable. Humble things cared for and then abandoned by hard working men and yet powerfully evocative of human struggle and aspiration. 

The Pressure Ridges

Just 3 miles down the road is the New Zealand operated Scott Base. It's a tidy well organized base with a perfect location right on the edge of the "barrier".

New Zealand's Scott Base - premier ice-front property.

New Zealand's Scott Base - premier ice-front property.

Welcome to New Zealand!

Welcome to New Zealand!

The crumbly pressure ridges in the foreground with the "Rollers" in the background. If they weren't frozen I'd have my long board out in a minute! The Rollers are compression ridges in the McMurdo Ice Shelf where it anchors against the shore of Ross Island.

The crumbly pressure ridges in the foreground with the "Rollers" in the background. If they weren't frozen I'd have my long board out in a minute! The Rollers are compression ridges in the McMurdo Ice Shelf where it anchors against the shore of Ross Island.

The barrier is a visible  ice divide between the McMurdo Ice Shelf (which is thick "hard" ice fixed to the shoreline whose source is the nearby glaciers pouring down off the Trans-Antarctic Mountains) and the pack ice (which forms on the surface of the ocean and can persist for many years without melting). Where the pack ice crushes up against the shore or the ice shelf, driven by wind and tidal currents, pressure ridges occur. These pile up and crash over each other (like cars in a horrendous hollywood fender bender) and form fantastic structures and masses colored by the various shades of ice from the pure white of recent compacted snow through to the deep azure blue of multiyear ice, all of which are tinted by sunlight and sky.

The wonderful icescape is made even more interesting by the fact that the cracks and fissures that open to the waters beneath and allow Weddell seals to surface and rest on the ice. 

Scientists in "big red" don't bother these guys.

Scientists in "big red" don't bother these guys.

A perfect place for a guided Sunday afternoon wander with a small group of people from the base.

Green and red flags mark safe routes for walking or driving.

Green and red flags mark safe routes for walking or driving.

Flying South

My stepping off point in early December was Christchurch - a lovely city, still laid low by the devastating earthquakes of 2011. I went to the National Science Foundation’s Clothing Distribution Centre (NSF’s CDC) adjacent to the Christchurch airport to get kitted out with the appropriate extreme cold weather (ECW) clothing that I would need - all I had to provide was my long underwear and socks and the NSF provides the rest!

The height of Antarctic fashion this year.

The height of Antarctic fashion this year.

On December 6th, we all woke at 5am, with our bags sorted and labelled to find out that our flight South had been postponed for 24hrs and that we would get to repeat the whole process the next morning and perhaps the morning after that. Sometimes departing flights can be delayed for up to two weeks with anxious polar travelers never quite knowing from day to day if their trip will happen. Weather is king in Antarctica and rules all comings and goings. Despite the regularity of polar flying everyone is very careful of weather, visibility and runway conditions. At least it is summer in New Zealand, so at 5am I got to enjoy a beautiful fiery red dawn.

The highlight of my stay in Christchurch was the chance to spend time at the Christchurch Art Gallery. A spectacular glass wave of a building with world class work on show. I always enjoy seeing work in New Zealand Museums and reacquainting myself with leading New Zealand artists and seeing their work in an international context.

“Geology” 2016. Haines & Hinterding

“Geology” 2016. Haines & Hinterding

I was fortunate to catch “Energies: Haines & Hinterding” - a major retrospective of two Australian artists who I’ve long admired Joyce Hinterding and David Haines. We share an interest in VLF radio transmissions and the construction of sculptural apparatus which detect and display the subliminal energies which are swirling around us at all times - but which evolution has selected to ignore (at least in our species). Or perhaps those energies aren’t really invisible to us and we do detect and are influenced by them - some of that subliminal awareness might be classified by us as the supernatural. Haines & Hinterding have constructed a fascinating array of apparatus and installations to help us experience these energies in action. You can enjoy the work virtually here - www.mca.com.au/discover-haines-and-hinterding

“Earthstar” 2008. Haines & Hinterding

“Earthstar” 2008. Haines & Hinterding

Seeing this work and enjoying their approach to the electromagnetic realm was a perfect provocation heading to the Ice.

Luckily on December 7th, we got to fly. We trooped out to the CDC again with all of our suitably tagged bags. Changed into our ECW (extreme cold weather) gear despite the warm and wet Christchurch weather and after having my bags (110lb) and myself and carry-on gear (240lbs) weighed and approved we got on a bus out on to the runway to climb aboard the Hercules transport plane and strap in.

350lbs of stuff - including me.

350lbs of stuff - including me.

Traveling by Herc is a treat in itself. These planes have been working hard, transporting people and supplies to the Ice for decades, lovingly cared for by their crews and ground staff. The newest of the planes were built in the 60’s and it’s a testament to their crews that they are still flying into the harshest conditions on the planet. We flew on a Royal New Zealand Air Force C- 130, strapped to webbing seats with our stuff all piled around us a huge pallet of freight loaded amidships and the guts of the plane exposed. It sounds painful but I found the 8-hour flight way more comfortable and enjoyable than the cramped coach American Airline’s flight from LA. On the plastic “Dreamliner” all I had to distract myself from the discomfort and bad food was hours of Hollywood crap playing on the back of the seat back way too close in front of me. On the Herc, all of the workings of the plane were exposed, and we could wander around at will and stretch out on comfy down jackets with good reading material (I was enjoying “Mountains of Madness” by my fellow passenger John Long - the recounting of his multi-week deep filed trip into the Trans-Antarctic Mountains in the early 90’s searching for Devonian fish fossils).

The only disconcerting factors were the loud constant drone of the props and the fact that the crew would wander by from time to time and open a hatch and check on the exposed machinery with a flashlight - what were they checking for exactly???

The portholes provided breathtaking views of the white-capped Southern Ocean, followed by occasional glimpses of aquamarine bergs, then huge slab tabular bergs and fractured sea ice and finally the continent itself.

That’ s ice and snow down there, not a cloud in the sky!

That’ s ice and snow down there, not a cloud in the sky!

After 8 hours in the air we approached Pegasus airbase for a perfectly smooth landing on the McMurdo Ice Shelf. Getting off on the ice! It was almost impossible squeezing through that tiny door in our full cold weather gear with all of our bags. But at last I was in Antarctica!!!!!