Thursday, October 11, 2007

First Impressions

So much to write about and so little space!! I think for my first blog the best thing to do is to let you know what I intend to use this page for and how often I intend to contribute to it, so that you don't waste time checking in only to find that there's nothing new. I hope to blog about every seven days, and my focus is going to be to try to inform you on the science and engineering behind the drilling program I'm a part of, and to update you on its progress. I'll give you the personal story too - what it's like to live here in the US McMurdo Base - but it won't be the major part of my page. If you have any specific questions you want me to answer then email me on and I'll aim to give you a response - either as a personal reply or as a part of a blog entry.

First impressions: IT'S COLD!!! It's an obvious thing to say when you are living on the world's coldest continent, but only a rare few New Zealanders know what it's like of step out of a air-conditioned C-17 Globemaster 3 into air that is nearly twice as cold as a chest freezer. Even with all the Extreme Weather Gear on, one's cheeks go numb and (for some reason) one starts coughing. We waddle between buildings in our oversized clothing, our heads down and hoods up, trying always to keep the freezing air from our faces, behaving just like the legendary Emperor penguins we have yet to come across.

That's just about the only discomfort here in the US base, where buildings are modern, warm, spacious and have all modern conveniences - showers, phones, flushing toilets. Bedrooms are shared in two-storey dormitories, with phone and internet access, TV lounges and pool tables. In fact, were it not or the extraordinary view of endless ice out of the window one could be mistaken for thinking one was in a military barracks or a large backpacker's hostel.

So what about the engineering? Alex Pyne and his Kiwi drilling team are twenty-five kilometres away and have already deployed the sea riser - the "drainpipe" which cases the drill string from the surface to the ocean floor. In the next few days they hope to start drilling proper, and to pull out the first rock/sediment cores. The sea ice they are sitting on is a comfortable eight metres thick, with another five metres of frazzle ice (like a slushy) immediately under it. In fact there is so much buoyancy there has been no need to send down divers to inflate the flotation bags to keep the sea ice pushed up. Nothing is for certain, but the prospects for success so far are good.

And the science? Not much I can tell you about right now, but I'm interested in finding out more precisely how magnetism in the core sediments can help age the core. I'm also tuning in to find out how radioactivity can help us to give the core an absolute age, and what tiny fossils of dead sea plankton in the sediment - as well as just the sediment itself -can tell us about how the climate may have changed. If you are impatient and want to find out more now, then watch last year's video journals on which give you a great introduction.

In the meantime here are some penguin facts I learned from a lecture I attended yesterday: Emperor penguins frequently dive to 400-500 metres and their dives can last up to twenty minutes. They conserve their oxygen supply by restricting blood to their flippers and feet but not to their core organs, and relative to seals they store little of the oxygen in their lungs. Before diving they precharge their bodies with oxygen by "hyperventilating", and return from their dives with their bodies oxygen-empty.

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