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.
SOUTH POLE JOURNAL
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.
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.
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