South Polies Tackle Last-Minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter

Posted March 23rd, 2016 at 9:14 am (UTC-5)
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A view of ARO from 29 meters up the Meterological tower, where one of the two inlets for the gas chromatograph is mounted. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

A view of ARO from 29 meters up the Meterological tower, where one of the two inlets for the gas chromatograph is mounted. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

The last plane left two weeks ago and everyone is settling into their wintertime roles.

SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
Refael Klein blogs about his year
working and living at the South Pole. Read his earlier posts here.

Station population sits at 50 and most departments are only a fraction of the size they once were. Although the summer crew left us in good shape, there is still a lot of work to get done before the sun sets.

Outbuildings are being winterized — windows boarded up, electricity cut off. Food stores are hauled from the berms to storage facilities inside, all of the food we need for 50 people for 8 months. And our emergency systems are being tested and retested; we need to know our spare generators will work, no matter what.

It’s getting colder. Temperatures are regularly dropping into the minus 60s Fahrenheit (minus 51 Celsius). In a week, maybe two, it will be too cold to operate our heavy equipment. No fork trucks, no snow plows, no tractors. Snow drifts will begin to form anew and anything that needs to get dragged from one point to another will need to be pulled by snowmobile or by hand.

Needless to say, everyone is taking advantage of the current conditions, getting as much done before winter truly takes hold. It’s going to be a sprint to the finish, but when your only option is to “make it,” you “make it”.

At the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), we are buttoning up the last of our more physically intensive, outside tasks. We raised our 2-meter meteorological instruments by a foot, so that they will still be at the same height, above the snow, in eight months, as they were when I first arrived. And we ran two new intake lines up our 30-meter tower for our gas chromatograph. Each activity took the better half of a day and resulted in cold hands, frost-nip and a few expletives, as work in these conditions often does.

Our gas chromatograph is perhaps the single most complex piece of equipment we utilize at ARO.  It is the workhorse of our Halocarbon research group, taking continuous measurements of various ozone-depleting substances and their replacement compounds. Since these chemicals only exist at very trace levels in the atmosphere, the instrument is designed to measure accurately at the part per trillion scale.

Many ozone-depleting substances are studied using the gas chromatograph. Pumps continuously suck air samples into the instrument, which then analyzes the sample for various compounds. Data is displayed on the computer screen. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Many ozone-depleting substances are studied using the gas chromatograph. Pumps continuously suck air samples into the instrument, which then analyzes the sample for various compounds. Data is displayed on the computer screen. (Photo by Refael Klein)

In other words, if you were to fill 400 Olympic size swimming pools with sugar cubes and then throw in one that was painted red, we would find it. It’s what our gas chromatograph does, continuously every day of the year: find, identify and count highly-elusive compounds.

When all is said and done, why does this matter? If something only exists at part per trillion levels, does it really affect our planet?  The answer is yes, and when it comes to ozone-depleting substances and their replacement compounds, it does so to a surprisingly high degree.

Chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs for short, make up the bulk of ozone-depleting substances. They were invented in the 1920s, as replacements for the refrigerants ammonia, sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride — all of which were highly toxic and dangerous to human health. At the time, CFCs were seen as a big step forward.  They were relatively inert, could withstand a seemingly endless number of refrigeration cycles and, if there happened to be a leak in your refrigerator, you wouldn’t die while pouring yourself a glass of milk.

What wasn’t known in the 1920s was the effect that trace amounts of CFCs would have on the ozone layer.

When there is a leak in your refrigerator, freezer or air-conditioner, refrigerant escapes and, if that refrigerant is a CFC, it will remain intact, unreactive, all the way to the stratosphere. Once in the stratosphere, with the help of UV radiation, CFCs are broken apart and release chlorine atoms, which proceed to bounce from ozone molecule to ozone molecule, tearing each one apart. It can do this for decades, which means that, even at a part per trillion levels, CFCs can do a lot of damage.

In fact, CFCs turned out to be so effective in destroying the ozone layer that, in the late 1980s, 27 nations, including the United States, drew up a treaty banning their use. To this day, the Montreal Protocol is considered by many to be the single most successful piece of international environmental legislation ever enacted. It stopped the use and production of CFCs, and replaced them with compounds that had shorter atmospheric lifespans and less ozone-destroying potential.

CFC 113 is one of many ozone-depleting substances monitored by the Global Monitoring Division. The commonly used refrigerant was banned under the Montreal Protocol. Note its precipitous decline. (Courtesy of NOAA/GMD)

CFC 113 is one of many ozone-depleting substances monitored by the Global Monitoring Division. The commonly used refrigerant was banned under the Montreal Protocol. Note its precipitous decline. (Courtesy of NOAA/GMD)

The gas chromatograph used by NOAA’s  Global Monitoring Division (GMD) is helping us better understand the dynamics of ozone recovery and predict what will happen in the future. The main focus of the instrument is to measure the presence of banned compounds, under the Montreal Protocol, and their replacements. As one would predict, CFCs are becoming less abundant and their replacement compounds are becoming more so, meaning the treaty is doing what it was designed to do: protect the ozone layer.

Working on the gas chromatograph has its challenges. It requires the most maintenance out of any project I work on — changing gas cylinders, tightening valves, adjusting air flows, building and replacing small fittings.  Sometimes our data shows a .5 part per trillion difference from what we expect to see. Where did the error come from? Was it me, the instrument, or the environment? It can be hard to figure out and, on occasion, working on such minute issues feels like chasing ghosts.

Studying the computer that runs the system, I watch data tick by; peaks form, they grow and shrink. Each one represents the presence of a certain compound and its abundance. Cycle after cycle, hour after hour, more data is displayed, compiled, and sent back to our labs for analysis.

I watch global trends unfold, the ebbs and flows of culture and industry as seen through the chemicals we produce. Everything measured at the smallest scale, the highest accuracy, and absolutely representative of our planet.

More South Pole Diaries
South Pole Summer Camp Helps Combat Winter Blues
Stranded Until Spring: Last Flight Leaves South Pole Before Winter Hits
In Giant Parkas, Rank Is Less Apparent

 

 

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

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