Shimmering Sights While Battling South Pole Boredom

Posted April 26th, 2016 at 2:05 pm (UTC-4)

The first auroras of the season dance over the IceCube Neutrino Observatory a the South Pole. Long exposure and a steady hand are needed to capture them on film. (Photo by Hans Boenish)

The first auroras of the season dance over the IceCube Neutrino Observatory a the South Pole. Long exposure and a steady hand are needed to capture them on film. (Photo by Hans Boenish)

It continues to grow darker. More stars and planets have become visible and the first auroras — pale green wisps of light — have made their presence known. They shimmer and pulse through the night sky, swooping here and there in long bends like a figure skater lost in thought.

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

Projects at the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) are running smoothly. Our CO2 analyzer, its pumps humming brightly, effortlessly sucks in air samples and calibration gasses, needing little help from me in the pursuit of its task.

Even the gas chromatograph, arguably our most fickle instrument, seems to have found its stride. The aerosol suite chugs along with the confidence of a locomotive and what is left of our roof top radiation equipment silently collects data, as indifferent as a nihilist watching the sun explode.

The quietude of the scene is the Antarctic winter personified. Everything in its place. Everything in stasis — hibernating, frozen. “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Was Clement Clarke Moore writing about ARO in May?  Perhaps.

The power plant is located on the lowest level of the station. It is comprised of three 1 mega watt generators that run off of fuel carried in by airplanes during the summer.  (Photo by Refael Klein)

The power plant, located on the lowest level of the station, is comprised of three 1-megawatt generators that run off of fuel carried in by airplanes during the summer. (Photo by Refael Klein)

With things at work in robust form and with time on my hands, I’ve begun volunteering in the station’s power plant, hoping to learn something about how modern diesel electric generators work and to lend a wrench-willing hand to one of the busier departments on station.

Rosie, the power plant foreman, is a short, middle-aged New Yorker with a thick borough accent and general swagger that approaches Robert De Niro in the movie Taxi Driver or Al Pacino in Serpico. He’s been working on generators for 25 years and has the forearms and knuckle scars to prove it, not to mention the perspective and encyclopedic knowledge that comes with doing anything for two-and-a-half decades.

He is the type of guy who will take the time to show you how to do something properly, “textbook”, and then beat you with a wrench until it sticks. You can’t help but learn in his presence; your life depends on it.

Rounds are conducted every two hours to ensure the power plant equipment is running properly. "Rosie" the foreman inspects a generator. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Rounds are conducted every two hours to ensure the power plant equipment is running properly. “Rosie” the foreman inspects a generator. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The engine room is comprised of three 1-megawatt generators, and one smaller, peaker generator which comes online automatically when the station’s power draw exceeds the safe operating capacity of whatever generator is online.

The room is loud and bright, to the point of being disorienting, and every 10,000-foot-oxygen-deprived breath you take in is infused with the rich aroma of fuel and oil. It is an absolute sensory overload — a perfect departure from the calm and sterility that pervades most of the work centers at the South Pole.

This week, we took one of the generators offline to begin its 1,000-hour maintenance check, which includes, among many things, changing the oil, replacing filters and replacing worn piston heads.

It will be three weeks before we have everything wrapped up and, over the course of the next few days, I’ll get to break down the exhaust system and begin removing the rocker assemblies. I’ve tinkered with cars before but there is something otherworldly about turning wrenches on an engine the size of a school bus.

My hands and shirt are covered in grease and a black grimy swoosh sits above my right eye.  Deep in the trenches of engine warfare, I’ve climbed on top of the generator to do battle with a stubborn bolt that needs to be removed but won’t budge. It’s been 30 minutes of trying this wrench and that socket, but nothing seems to work.

My hands are scraped and bleeding, and sweat, which is mixing with the grease on my forehead, falls into my eyes. It stings. I climb down off the generator, grab a clean shop towel, and begin rub grease off my hands and face.

Maybe I should head back to ARO, I think, to check on the equipment, but I know all the instruments there are running soundly and that I’m far too stubborn to be beaten by a bolt.

More South Pole Diaries
South Pole Station Gears Up for Busy ‘Nightlife’
Greeting 6 Months of Darkness with Sumptuous Feast

Bracing for the Sun to Set for 6 Long Months

Isolated and Alone, South Pole Workers Face Unexpected Emergencies

South Polies Tackle Last-minute Preps to Survive Brutal Winter 

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.

12 responses to “Shimmering Sights While Battling South Pole Boredom”

  1. Jessica Pozankowski says:

    Hi Refael, Another grad school student here amazed by your journey! Although the work sounds difficult and taxing, especially on your hands, I’m glad you are trying new things to keep from the south pole boredom. I read a few of your entries now and your writing and photography is something very special. I look forward to reading more of your journey and wish you well during the darker days!

  2. Alexander Ras says:

    Hello Refael, I am another graduate student and truly amazed by your pictures and descriptive blog entries. The generators look incredibly large and seem like a real nuisance at times. I cant’ imagine the amount of work it must take to make sure the power plant equipment is running efficiently. It must be an experience of a lifetime to work at the South Pole. I look forward to reading some more of your blog entries in the future!

  3. Nicole Spinello says:

    Hi! I am a grad student also amazed at what you do! You seem to do SO much work and I respect you for that! Awesome pictures an entries. I look forward to seeing all that you do.

  4. Megan Wilvert says:

    Refael, I am in awe of all the work that you are doing at the South Pole. I have always wanted to see the auroras, I’m sure your beautiful pictures do not even do it justice! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  5. Brigid Victorson says:

    Hi Refael,
    I’ve read several of your entries, and look forward to reading more. You are very brave in my eyes to brave working in these conditions. How ominous once that plane left, then the temperature dropped, and now you are volunteering for extra work only to do grueling labor for weeks on end. I admire your tenacity and positive attitude. What an adventure you are on. It certainly can’t be easy. I saw you wrote about seasonal affective disorder. I hope you stay well there and are able to combat that. You must have to fight that off with the 6 months of darkness and the frigid temps.
    I love the beauty in your photos. Do keep them coming.
    Oh I am also in the graduate class witih Bette Schneiderman. She introduced us to your blog, and this is great to live vicariously through you! Hang in there and stay warm!
    Brigid V.

  6. Hi Refael,
    Thank you for posting your thoughts about the generators. Rosie is my cousin Johnny your description of him fits him well, I would have never thought to compare him to Di Niro. I am always wondering how he is doing although we exchange emails Rosie would never describe what he is really doing. It’s great to see him on the job. It seems like he is the back bone of your work out there and a unsung hero. Thanks again. I’d ask you to give Rosie a big hug for me but you know he wouldn’t like that, just tell him how very proud we are of him. Keep up the good work you have a great team out there.
    Rosie’s Old cousin but still good looking Ann

  7. Heather Rickard says:

    Refael, The work you are doing in the South Pole seems like it can be tiresome and taxing at times, but the experience seems well worth it! Your entries are interesting and very descriptive, as well as your photographs being well detailed. I wish I was able to see what you see first hand! Thank you for your work and the ability to read about your journey!

  8. Jonathan Chin says:

    Hello–another grad student from New York here. I always been fascinated with the culture in the colder climates and hope to visit such places in the future. Thank you for sharing with us on what it’s like. Pictures are worth a thousand words and I can almost smell and hear what it is like down there. Thanks again!

  9. Stu says:

    You folks are lucky to have Rosey.

    I have known him since he was a kid. He worked for me for a couple of years. He is a “Can Do” guy.
    If any one can keep all the wheels turning it Is Rosey. He is the real deal when it come to making things work properly.

    Enjoy your warmth and comfort and safety.

    sent from 89° F. Florida

  10. Jessica Heschl says:

    Hello! Another grad students from Long Island, here! I think that the work that you are doing is fascinating! You are an inspiration. It is a wonderful thing how technology can connect so many people, and that we can actually see what you (in the south pole) are working on from Long Island, NY! I loved hearing about Rosie! I had a teacher like that and it’s really true… you can’t help but learn from people like that! It really enjoyed all of the pictures that you posted as well. Auroras are something that I always wanted to see in person!

  11. Austin G. says:

    Wow! Thanks for taking the time to log all of this. This work seems impressive and I can’t imagine the sites you’re seeing in person. Stay well and keep up the good work. Thanks for putting the time in for us to enjoy your experiences vicariously!

  12. Jessie says:

    Hi Refael,
    I am (yes another) grad student and I really enjoy reading all of your posts! Thank you for sharing your experiences with the world. I definitely don’t think I can handle being in the conditions you work in, so props to you for that!

    Looking forward to continue following you on your adventure 🙂