Monday, July 13, 2015

Bad Weather in Antarctica

Practically halfway through July.  Time is flying by.  At 1pm the sky is hinting at a light blue these days.  I was expecting to be thrilled that the sun is coming back but instead I'm a bit apprehensive.  The darkness has a nice mellow quality.  I don't feel bad just relaxing in my room or having quiet time.  It's OK if I don't want to go hiking or if I don't take a lunchtime walk for exercise.  It's dark and cold out!  You SHOULD stay in.  However, now that the sun is coming back,  it's almost like I can sense the coming frenzy.  In August our population with double and we'll have normal days and nights.  I am looking forward to it. Don't get me wrong but it feels like the end of a nap.    You know you'll be refreshed when you get up, but you'd just love it go on a little while longer.

I was worried our winter would pass us by without a good storm but we were given a doozy of one last Thursday.  We categorize our weather into three "conditions". Normal daily operations is Condition Three.  This is nice weather and we have no restrictions.  The parameters for Con 3 are: winds less than 48 knots,  visibility greater than or equal to ¼ mile, and Wind chill temperature warmer than -75°F.    Condition two comes with restrictions to recreational travel but work as normal continues about town:  Winds 48 to 55 knots sustained for one minute or  Visibility less than ¼ mile, but greater than or equal to 100 feet sustained for one minute, or  Wind chill -75°F to -100°F sustained for one minute.   It's not uncommon to have Condition two weather.  It's cold and windy but workable.  Condition One is rare.  This was the first time I'd experienced it here.  Condition One means you cannot leave whatever building you are in without a Search and Rescue escort.  If you are in the dorms, they set up rope lines between the dorms and the dining hall  so that you can eat but you have to travel in groups and check out with the firehouse when you leave and then arrive at the next building.   In this recent storm, it got so bad at one point that they cancelled ropeline travel between buildings as well.  Condition one parameters are: Winds greater than 55 knots sustained for one minute or Visibility less than 100 feet sustained for one minute or Wind chill greater than -100°F sustained for one minute.

The morning started out with bad weather.  We tried to drive up to work but couldn't make it.  At one point we tried to follow someone walking but once they got 15 feet in front of us they would disappear.   Finally we had to roll down both front windows and just drive hollering directions between driver and passenger.  We stopped at the first building we came to and walked the rest of the way.  About 15 minutes after we got to work, the operations manager called us to warn us that they would be changing the condition and we should head down the hill now.   It was 8:30am.   Travis and I struck out to get down the hill together.   Instantly, we were almost blown over and couldn't see any landmarks or buildings.  Instead,  we walked toward the hazy streetlight in the direction of town.  When we got there, it was not where i expected to be and only being able to see 20 feet in any direction, I couldn't orient myself. Thankfully Travis knew where we were and got us back on track.   We stopped in at the galley, gathered snacks and provisions and then went to our rooms to wait out the storm.  The weather continued to get worse throughout the day so we had a snow day!  It was great fun.  People came and hung out in our room, we made arts and crafts,  listened to music and generally just hung around.

While we had a great relaxing day, many other people got called out to deal with all the issues the arise from a Condition one storm.  One of the main issues is temperature moderation. The science building, IT building and NASA equipment is all very sensitive to temperature and with the winds blowing so hard and fast, it's hard to moderate temperature which meant that alarms were going off in all of those buildings all day and people had to be traveling back and forth trying to keep McMurdo systems up and running.  The galley, of course, has to go to and stay at work during Condition One, the Search and Rescue team is out and about escorting people to and from buildings with their GPS systems and fire dispatch becomes a hotbed of activity as people are calling in and out to walk between buildings, report alarms or  request assistance.

The next day is when the fun of clean-up happens.  Fleet Operations is the crew with all the big equipment to get out and plow town out.  The were in their trucks ready to start working at 7:30 on the dot.   When we walked up to our barn, we had a HUGE snowdrift in front of our barn doors. The smallest part of the drift was up to my hips and it started at the door and then came out about 25 feet.  Thankfully, because we have buckets for our loaders, fleet ops came up to help us get out so we could get to work helping to dig out town.   The winds were so intense that in some places there was no snow on the roads but in others it would be 5 feet deep.  Trucks were buried in,  cardboard had blown all over town,  many of our big shipping containers had been knocked around, off stacks or blown down the road, the supply crew had to take a full assessment of all their outside storage and, of course, everyone who was able was out shoveling.   While my co-workers were helping to plow, I had to cruise around town to hunt down all our lost or tipped trash bins and set everything back in order.  By the end of the day, remarkably, town was pretty much back in shape.  There's still a few things that need to happen, but mostly, it looks good.  This is very important because we have a flight coming in this week. The same crew that puts town in order also has to get the runway up and running.  With the condition one that we had, it means there job will be all the more difficult.   They will have to plow and groom the 14 miles of road that leads out to the runway and then smooth and groom the runway to the specific requirements of the AirForce.  Not only that, but out on the iceshelf, the wind really whips through so many of our building there are flipped over, moved and I've heard rumor that one is even lost.

For all that, it was really insightful to be in Antarctica during a Condition One.  It was a good reminder that this is a wild place.

After the walk back to town through the nasty weather,  I went to take my pants off but the zippers were clogged with snow and ice. That was from less than 10 minutes walking outside.  Snow gets everywhere.  It is insidious! 
Our friend Dan standing outside our dorm door during the storm. 
A short progession of the snow accumulation inside one of our windows. 

A nice fine cover. 

Could make a snowball out of all that. 

This is our bedroom window.  I keep that wool blanket over the bottom half to keep out light and cold so that we can look at the stars while in bed.   This window also got a little snowy.

The light is about 5 carlengths away. There's a whole building there.

This is just one of 5 milvans that got blown around during the storm. One blew all the way down the road. 
This is the bathroom out at the airfield.   Thankfully all the good inside would have been frozen.